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Trip Report His and Hers Vacations: Barcelona &Tarragona for her; WRC Rally for him!

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The Trip Report title is partially facetious; DH and I both enjoyed (mostly!) all parts of the trip. But our 4 days in Barcelona (BCN) and Tarragona were mostly geared toward me, and the 4 days of the Rally were generally for him.

This was definitely a very individualistic vacation/adventure that no one will ever repeat, but I hope that parts and pieces we enjoyed will be helpful to those who may visit Barcelona, Tarragona, or other areas of the Costa Daurada OR who may want to experience a WRC—World Rally Championship--Rally.

DH, long an appreciator of cars of all sorts and auto racing of various types, has become a fan of European rally racing over the last 5-6 years and has been to 4 (3 in Germany and 1 in the UK). In the fall of 2011 he began to investigate the possibility of taking me to one. Q: Would it be possible the following late summer or autumn? A: We had enough AA FF miles for 2 European tickets; I predicted my part-time teaching positions would be about the same or less in the fall of 2012; and he found that the Spain rally--Rally Catalunya on the Costa Daurada near Tarragona--would be in November of 2012, so the planning began in earnest.

Some other facts that dictated our plans:

1.He’d been to Barcelona for a day once and then a weekend in Tarragona; he wanted to take me back to those two sites before the race, so we figured out about how long we’d spend in each place;

2.We secured AA FF tickets in December 2011;

3. We discovered we had enough points for 2 free nights at a Holiday Inn Express in BCN, although it was very obviously not at city center and would require the use of taxis and/or public transport; we decided the trade-off was fine and made reservations;

4.We made reservations at a hotel in Tarragona overlooking the sea where he’d wanted to stay before but didn’t—Imperial Tarraco—for two nights;

And 5. He investigated how to “do” the whole rally thing. He had self-driven to the four rallies he’d attended, but after some investigation he decided that he wouldn’t want to try to do the same in Spain. (Less familiar with roads/no Spanish language skills/specifics about how rallies in Spain differed from others=factors that swayed this decision.) He found Rally Travel, a UK company which specializes in tours for WRC Rallies worldwide. They book hotels, including breakfast (even early when needed for Rally-goers) and dinner, handle car rentals if you want to “self-drive” (they also have bus and guides available), and provide much rally info and maps and GPS coordinates, etc., for getting to the spots from which to watch the racing. They were wonderful. We highly recommend them. For us they even arranged to have the car available for pick-up two days early. They were responsive, organized, and just all around commendable. Brilliant.

So with all those arrangements made months (almost a year for some of it) in advance, we just waited for November 2012 to arrive. I usually research my trips extensively and have exact, detailed, packed itineraries of possible and probable destinations, but not this time. DH knew where he wanted to take me in and around Tarragona, and we knew the rally days would be full of activities based on info we’d get on-site. I did read a good bit about Barcelona and picked a very few of its many wonderful possibilities; we’d be limited by jet lag the first day and no car the second. We also read enough to become a bit leery of public transport in BCN, which was not a decision made quickly. On business DH has traveled to a dozen different European countries as well as extensively to, from China, and I have made 4 trips to the UK and a few others to the Continent. We’ve used lots of different modes of public transportation completely harm-less-ly. But we became very concerned about potential problems in public transport in BCN and opted before we even got there to rely on taxis only, not the Metro or bus. This was a personal decision that we are happy with; we could have saved money, but we opted for some peace of mind. I’d call us both hyper-vigilant when traveling, but we didn’t want to have to be super-hyper! I know some people, even some here on this Forum, have had wonderful safe experiences all over BCN; we just decided not to use public options.

As November approached, we did all our “normal” pre-travel things with a few twists for this trip. DH made sure our Garmin (“Sheila”) was updated and ready for Spain. I had 6 different high school classes at two teaching venues to prepare substitute lessons for, for 6 class days—YIKES! Never again! I called financial institutions; the bank had to unlock our ATM card for use in Spain, because of so much fraud recently. (We’d had incident (happily resolved) earlier in the year involving fraudulent use of our debit card number at a place in France—while we were in the US and had never been there—and learned of mega ATM/debit card frauds going on in Europe—vigilance so necessary.) We packed, handed off lessons, keys and responsibilities to DD, DS and neighbors, and off we went!

Now a bit about us—we are in our 50’s, pretty fit, and prefer to pack our trips with lots to see and pursue rather than “relax.” We aren’t foodies. We take 1000’s of pictures (but we don’t post them generally), each of us using Sony DSLR’s. As mentioned above, we’ve been overseas several times, DH actually quite often with work the last 5-6 years, so we know lots of the normally prudent things to do and to pack to make a trip work well. The only “un-normal” things this time were two small folding stools that traveled on his camera backpack when we attended the Rally.

As it was the WRC Rally that was the impetus of the trip, I will digress a moment and define this. IF YOU KNOW WHAT A WRC RALLY RACE IS, SKIP THIS! A rally is a type of race in which cars travel, one at a time, over certain sections (called “stages”) of public or private roads. There are often a variety of surfaces involved in one race—mud, gravel, snow, tarmac. A WRC (World Rally Championship) Race is made up of multiple stages, each usually 15-50 km, which are mostly over regular/public roads that have been temporarily shut off to the public. Multiple stages (4-6 per day) are run over several days (usually 3), and the times are tallied up for an overall fastest time over the whole set of stages. The cars--Citroen D3s, Ford Fiestas, Mini Countrymen, and others of similar size--are also “street-legal” as they have to travel from the end of one stage many km’s to the beginning of the next, and they do this traveling along public roads (sometimes having close, or too close, encounters with fans-in-cars or with local police!) There are almost never viewing stands (there are a few for stages in cities), so spectators stand or sit as close as allowed at various viewing or access points. In general a spectator decides which stage to see, figures out how to drive to or near it, parks, walks (sometimes a LLLOONNGG way), and sits or stands waiting for cars to fly by (often 2 or more hours before the first car). Then the cars go whizzing by, about 2 minutes apart. There are different levels of competition, so the “big guns” go by first. In the WRC circuit there were 13 races in 2012 all over the world (but not the US!)—Monte Carlo, Sweden, France, Germany, Greece, Great Britain and more.

The Rally Spain-Catalunya was the last of the 2012 WRC season, so the overall champion would be decided. Actually, by Rally 11 I think, it was clear that the Citroen driver from France, Sebastian Loeb, who had already won 8 consecutive years, was set for another world championship. He’s an amazing driver and had announced intentions to retire (at least from full-time rallying), so we were glad to be there to see his finale.

And so we begin!

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    Saturday/Sunday—Travel from Texas to Barcelona

    We had to get up very early to be at our airport by 5 am, but all travel ahead looked clear, if LONG. It must have been non-eventful travel, with uncomplicated connections at DFW and JFK, because I don’t have any notes written about the trip. I remember it was rather cold on the flight from Dallas and in the JFK airport, but after “Superstorm Sandy” had passed through just a few days earlier, we were relieved that all was up and running. Neither of us slept much at all; having this trip broken up into 3 legs with 2-4 hour layovers at 2 major airports made for a very long travel day.

    We arrived at a very unbusy BCN at about 6:30 am. There were no lines at passport control, our luggage was arriving as we got to carrel, and we found a taxi easily, so we were headed to the city before sunup.

    We arrived at our hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, in the Poblenou area on Pallars before 8:30 after a €35 ride of about 30-40 minutes. They unexpectedly were able to assign us a room (we’d figured we’d be just depositing our luggage with them before sight-seeing) and also invited us to have the breakfast included in the room charge. So we availed ourselves of the food and the room for a brief rest. We were feeling very jet-lagged, but found a taxi and headed into Barcelona. (All the taxi rides were about €8 —a couple were more and one was about €5.) Our goals were fairly modest: walking a bit around the Barri Gotic, hoping to see the saldana performed, and strolling on and around the Rambla.

    My first impressions of BCN were very mixed:

    • Arrival—The airport was quiet and efficient (maybe arriving at 6:30 am on a Sunday was part of that!) BUT we had to go to a third ATM to get one to respond correctly (one didn’t “speak” English). Always angst-producing to have any glitches with money procurement! The taxi trip wasn’t exactly through lovely scenery BUT we had a gorgeous sunrise as a promise of pretty day.

    • Hotel—It is horribly European post-war, square, industrial looking with the street-level parking garage doors covered with graffiti. The hotel faces an empty, weedy lot and is surrounded by empty office spaces and not-picturesque housing units, BUT inside the staff was great, all was clean, and it was quite roomy and comfy. It was a HI Express, so not deluxe but perfectly fine. The only negative as far as the accommodations (not counting the views outside) was its distance from what we wanted to see, but this was not a surprise to us at all and a taxi was always available right outside. As noted above, we had made a personal decision not to use the Metro or buses after reading too many warnings. There were public transport options within short walking distance from the Hotel (Llacuna Metro about 3 blocks away). The hotel was quite busy with business people, some families, and a few other couples.

    • First minutes in Barcelona’s center—We were dropped off at the north end of Placa Catalunya, said to be one of the city’s main and most vibrant areas, BUT it was almost empty of people—just a couple joggers and a film crew and a couple sleeping guys—and it stank of human wastes of all sorts. It was sorta eerie and quiet on this cloudy Sunday morning. It was quite a different feel from being at London’s Trafalgar Square or Frankfurt’s Romer or Rome’s Piazza Navonna, other city “squares” I’ve begun my visits from. I wasn’t very impressed, but as we walked along the views got more interesting and there were more people without being crowded yet. I found the apartments in Barcelona to be some of the most attractive of any large city I’ve been in, with their pretty balconies with iron work and plants.

    We were in the city very much earlier than I had predicted. It threw my “itinerary plans” (never too firmed up anyway) out of kilter. I had found a few different self-guided walking tours of the Barri Gotic area, so my goal was to have us go by several of the places mentioned on them, even if we didn’t do it in order or go inside any. We headed down the Rambla a little and over to the Cathedral to check out the area. It was way too early for the saldana, we were tired, and DH suggested we find a coke, so back to a McD’s on the Rambla it was. We rested and watched the Rambla get busier and busier for almost an hour. About 11 we went back to the plaza at the cathedral and found some seats. An orchestra was setting up, and people were arriving, some dressed in matching clothes, ready to dance. We took some pictures, and then around 11:30 or 40 the dancing began. So fun. There was a big ring of older people, a small ring of a group in matching black and white with the ladies wearing special shoes, and a small and bouncy group of younger people. Then about 15 minutes later it started lightly raining and everybody, musicians, viewers, dancers, all packed up and left. Oh well.

    We considered starting our walk according to the map/plan I had, but we were feeling really tired and it was raining a little harder. There was a huge crush of people trying to get into the cathedral, so we gave seeing the inside a pass. We sorta lost interest in trying to FIND anything in the windy wiggly charming streets and just walked back to La Rambla. While we’d not passed by half of the spots I’d noted, we had gotten the feel of this old area, and for DH it was plenty this day. La Rambla was not nearly as congested as pictures and descriptions had said, but it was still plenty crowded on this coolish rainy Sunday morning. We walked the entired length of the Rambla to the waterfront near the Columbus statue and found a bench where we people-watched and ate some snacks we’d packed along. Then we decided that, unusually for us, we were just gonna call it an early day; we’d been up with almost no sleep for about 28-30 hours now. We were feeling it! (DH had actually only been home from a week’s business travel in Germany, so he actually started the trip a little more fatigued than he’d wanted.) We caught a taxi back about 2 and rested.

    The hotel suggested a restaurant within walking distance, the Xorus on the neighborhood’s Rambla de Poblenou. About 7, we found they were open (yes, Spanish restaurants do often have dinner hours much later than we are used to! But this one seemed open all afternoon and evening without a break) and had wonderful seafood paella, their specialty. The staff was wonderful and the food great; we highly recommend it. Poblenou seemed like a working class neighborhood, and there were a few people walking on the neighborhood rambla this nice evening. Early bedtime and Gaudi sites tomorrow!

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    Monday—Gaudi

    I had two goals today—the Sagrada Familia, which DH had seen before, and Parc Guell. It looked to be a spectacularly lovely day with no rain in the forecast and warm enough to enjoy being outside.

    After a restful night and simple but filling continental breakfast, we took a taxi to the Sagrada Familia and, surprisingly to DH but not to me, we found a line already formed about 8:30. We had a nice visit in line with a couple from Australia and a young man from Thailand. We had a not nice encounter with a beggar who came by, on crutches, with hand out and voice pleading. No one was giving him anything. DH said something like No hablo espanol, and after he ignored the man for another minute or so, the guy took his crutches and hit DH on the ankle. The Aussie lady was appalled; the guy came back by and gave another poke along with his whine. But we all just stood there stolidly, and in not too long he moved on. This was the only encounter we had like this. I saw several beggar women and men around the cathedral and streets near it, and a few on La Rambla, but none of them were bothering people. Also we never saw or felt anyone suspected of being pick-pockets. We had cameras around our necks, but our important cards and almost all our money were in Jack Wolfskin under-clothing-pouches; our backpacks were bulging but with layers of clothing, snacks, water bottles, and sundries. We would have been inconvenienced if the backpacks had been messed with, but our important stuff was skin-close and we had very protective hands and eyes on camera equipment.

    The ticket office must have opened promptly at 9 and we, just a little way around the corner, were soon inside. Well, words can’t relay how amazing it is. I “like” old gothic cathedrals better; but this is pure genius also! The light; the branching columns; the heights and colors and…DH was astounded by how much progress had been made since 2008, when all the central area had still been in scaffolding, and he took many many photos. We got tickets to go up the Nativity Tower and rode the elevator up and walked down. The sky was blue and the city sparkled below, spread out all around and to the Sea. Wow! I love the inside; I appreciate the art and the work of the outside but don’t find it beautiful, just amazing. But inside—wow. I can’t recommend highly enough that every visitor to Barcelona try to see this; it’s worth the cost (€13 +3 for visit and tower; we opted for no audio guide).

    About noon we walked around outside a bit (after standing in line to get into the gift shop!—never seen that before!—got a few items) in the park in front, and then we settled for a Subway sandwich right across the street, where we ran into the young man from Thailand again. Then another taxi to Parc Guell. Traffic was really heavy and the street up the steep hill to the front entrance was jammed. But while there were hordes of people on this stunningly lovely Monday afternoon, we still enjoyed our several hours just walking around and enjoying the Gaudi touches everywhere as well as the views from the different heights, especially from the area with the world’s longest bench. Lots of school groups. We took tons more photos, and when we ran into the young man from Thailand again (!), we got him to take our picture, too.

    Another taxi ride took us back to the hotel, and after a short rest we walked back over to Xorus and had a variety of tapas and wonderful chocolate dessert, too. The street had many banks, too, so we used an ATM. We had some packing left to do, plus the nightly chores of downloading/backing up the days’ photos and recharging all the phone/camera batteries.

    MY TAKE ON BARCELONA? I’m so glad we had a bit of time here, but I didn’t fall in love with it. I loved the two Gaudi things we got to see, we didn’t get robbed/mugged/pick-pocketed, and people were helpful and generally friendly. I know there’s much much more to see, but I’m glad for the 3-4 areas we did see. It doesn’t go on the top of my “want to re-visit” list, but I’m glad we went.

    Tomorrow—We’d leave Barcelona and head to Tarragona

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    (Cathinjoetown--hope the below helps persuades you--We loved Tarragona. I'd urge you to make your plans firm!)

    Tuesday—On to Tarragona via Montserrat

    We left after an early breakfast to take the hour taxi ride to the airport to pick up the rental car. We had a bit of a mix-up; DH thought the directions said to pick the car up at a particular street address, but actually we were supposed to go to Terminal 1, and by the time he’d figured it out, the poor cab driver, who spoke almost no English, was rather confused by our instructions. But we did finally say the right words (auto rental?), and he had graciously turned the meter off at €35, which is what the ride from the airport to hotel had cost us. We had to go inside the terminal to finish our transaction with Sixt, but all went smoothly.

    We had set a course for Montserrat as a way point to Tarragona. We had an amazing drive, first on very nice highways and then on windy mountain roads, up into the jagged hilltops. Montserrat is a Benedictine monk mountain retreat northwest of Barcelona. Its placement against the serrated mountain tops makes for awesome views, and we had a fairly clear day on which to enjoy the marvellous vistas. There is a cable car up, as well as funicular railways climbing the mountainsides, but we were glad to have a car today.

    It was quite chilly when we arrived at the large parking lot, and we tossed on hats, scarves, and layers. This complex has several retreat/conference facilities, a basilica, several gift shops and a large dining area, and there’re still a few monks there. We just moseyed around, had a warm lunch, and enjoyed the views. We entered the church right after the boys’ choir performance (which had not been on our agenda—too many people anyway—we weren’t in the mood for crowd-mingling today) and admired it awhile. The line to get close to the Black Madonna, for which the area is famous, was tremendously long, so we just viewed it through the lenses of our cameras.

    It was worth the drive and time for the views; all the rest of the complex itself seemed directed to people coming there on retreat or to a resort; so much tacky stuff in the huge gift shops seemed targeted for grandparents on tour buses! We did get some delicious chocolate.

    A fine drive down the mountains and on into Tarragona brought us to the Imperial Tarraco in late afternoon. (On the way we stopped at a viewing area to catch my first glimpse of Puente del Diablo, the section of a Roman aqueduct still spanning a gorge. We’d come back tomorrow.) We were able to park in the lot in front of the hotel. Our room was wonderful; the room itself was quite nice, but the view overlooking the Mediterranean with a bit of Tarragona’s traffic, a Roman ampitheater, and the beach area added in was gorgeous.

    After we regrouped just a little, we took off for the short walk to the ampitheater right across the road. There is a ticket to 6 historical (mostly Roman) sites, so we bought that and made it to the ampitheater about 4 pm with plenty of late afternoon golden light. I LOVED scrambling around this place. I’ve been in the Coliseum in Rome and a similar arena/ampitheater in Trier, Germany, but in this one I got to sit on the seats, which even if they were reconstructed were still amazing to still be there over 2000 years later! Lots of fun photos and then we took a walk into the old part of the city.

    In 2008 when DH had been here on business he’d bought me some dark chocolate truffles from a chocolate shop on one of the plazas; he’d talked to the young owner’s fiancé, as she spoke English but the owner didn’t, and taken a photo of the couple. One definite stop in Tarragona this trip was to buy some of those chocolates! We’d printed out a copy of the pic to give to them if the shop was still there. Well, we forgot to bring the photo from the hotel, and Placa del Forum, which DH remembered as being the site of the shop, had no sign of chocolates. Sad. But then a couple streets later, I spotted a small butterfly sign with an arrow—L’abella. The shop had moved to a smaller street and a smaller shop (and probably a smaller rent!?). We entered the tiny shop overflowing with an aroma of chocolate I can still conjure up, and the young man was there to greet us, speaking a little English now. We figured out his name later--Sergio Roig—and his shop is L’abella on Carrer Talavera, 8, near the Placa del Forum. We conveyed that DH had been there before and we’d return tomorrow or the next day to buy some candies. We made note of his hours (odd ones—open around 10:45 and closed for several hours in early afternoon—siesta hours!?) and continued our walk.

    Tarragona is a charming town; the old city is OLD. There are Roman parts dating from its time as an important Roman provincial capital, having become part of the Roman Empire in the 3rd c. BC and a capital around 45BC. There are many medieval sites, too. I found it to be almost as windy and maze-y as Barcelona’s medieval town but smaller and prettier and easier navigated. (or maybe that was because I had a guide this time, instead of trying to BE one!) And the business/shopping district and the area around its Rambla Nova is also nice, easily navigated, plenty of shopping and eating options. We had walked to a restaurant he remembered as being good but it wasn’t open until 8, so we went back to our nearby room for rest and then had dinner. It was a bit of a disappointment, so I won’t mention the name. Others seemed quite happy with their drinks, and the few meals being served looked better than mine, so it may have just been an unfortunate menu choice. Anyway, we had a lovely walk in the late evening cool, strolling along the balcony looking out over the Mediterranean washing gently on the beach.

    Tomorrow—More Tarragona and a meeting in the evening in Salou

    Wednesday—Tarragona and some Rally info in Salou

    Today we were going to explore Tarragona, made a World Heritage Site in 2000, until late afternoon, then drive to the aqueduct on the way to nearby town of Salou where there was to be a meeting at 7 pm with the RallyTravel folks to get our information packet and maps and such for the rally which started Thursday. Breakfast at the Imperial was not included and cost more than it would be worth to us fairly light breakfast eaters, so we walked to a McD’s on Rambla Nova (where they were “pollarding” the trees) and then began our pursuit of several historical sites which were listed on our tickets from yesterday.

    We began at Casa Castellarnau, a home of nobility dating from the 15th-19th centuries. Then we walked along the outside of the Roman wall, the oldest Roman wall outside of Rome, along the north east of the town. The wall, begun around 200 BC, has undergone various improvements, fortifications, and times of damage. There are several small displays in and next to the wall as well as numerous scenic stops for great city views as well as a very old relief—oldest outside of Rome?—on the Minerva Tower . A very nice walk.

    Then we visited another house, Casa Canals near the Passeig San Antoni (Saint Anthony Gate in the Roman city wall), another home of the nobility, a site fairly recently given to the city as a museum. Inside here one of the most interesting aspects was the space in the wall which was like a hidden hallway that the servants used so they’d stay out of sight of the aristocratic owners. DH noticed the spacing, and one of the attendants explained. It reminded me of the ceramic fireplace/heaters in many German fine homes/castles that had a door that opened out in a hall, which gave servants access for fuel-input and cleaning so that servants never had to enter the owner’s room. Different world. From the rooftop patio there was a fine view of the silvery sea with silhouettes of tankers and ships breaking up the sparkling rippled gray sheet of water.

    Anyway, after this we were near the cathedral so explored it for a while. It is under some renovation; it has to be entered, after paying a fee, not from the front but a side door. It isn’t that wonderful, but it does have an important historical role in the city and I always enjoy comparing churches and cathedrals.

    Going from site to site like this enabled us to really enjoy the old city part of Tarragona. The weather was great and the walks not too steep and the time not rushed. We stopped in some little souvenir shop for a little saucer that I can use as a tea tidy; it was marked with the ubiquitous Tarragona “T”.

    We walked back toward the hotel, stopping for a doner lunch along the way. We then went to the Praetorium and up a tower there for another Roman site on our ticket. But it had had years of other governmental uses over the centuries. I enjoy these Roman preservations so much, but one of the most interesting things about this site to me was the display about a small room used for pre-execution stays by prisoners during the Spanish Civil War. I have read a bit about the difficulty of coming to grips with all that history and its cruelty and death between WWI and the death of Franco (and after), so to see this I think fairly recently added display was perhaps indicative of how Spain is trying to deal with some of the pain of these periods.

    We then drove to the aqueduct, Pont del Diablo/ Pont de les Ferreres, a World Heritage Site about 4km from town. Dating from the time of Augustus, it has about 250 meters surviving here in a double-tiered construction. We were going to catch late afternoon sun as it turned the sandstone golden brown. We parked and walked on a path through a hilly area and neared the aqueduct. Wow again. We scrambled down the hill to touch the base, climbed back up to marvel at the size, and actually walked across it for some marvellous views. DH said they’d added a concrete top edge that made the sides higher by several inches so it was safer to walk across, which he hadn’t done last time. Then back across and to the car; on to Salou, a short 15 minute or so drive down the coast.

    Salou is a seacost, resort town with lots of industry around it. It’s sorta like maybe an aging Floridian resort? Lots of bars, some amusement parks, some things shut down for the winter, lots and lots of hotels. Our hotel for the rally days was in Salou, and some of the rally activities were in and around here. It was the RallyTravel’s arrangements that had booked us here, and it turned out to be more than fine, but Salou itself wasn’t very appealing to me.

    We got there about 6 and checked out the hotel and surrounding area a little. This hotel in Salou—Regina Gran—was where we’d be staying during the 4 days of the rally. A little after 7 the meeting got underway; we got our packet of info including maps and gps coordinates for all the stages and access, sample itineraries, and pretty complete info about the upcoming events. We met the two on-site guides/contacts with RallyTravel, too. The special guest speaker was WRC’s own expert Julian Porter, who’s presence seem to please DH greatly.

    Afterwards we had a buffet dinner in the hotel dining room—lots of good salads, decent entrees and soups, some sweet stuff. It was €12 each; the 4 nights we would be staying here this would be where we’d be eating dinners as part of the travel package. It wasn’t fine dining, but it was better than adequate! Then back to Tarragona; on the way we decided what we’d do the next day now that we had the info about the rally—first up, DH decided he wanted to drive back to Salou for a qualifiying/practice round and a first chance to see the drivers this week.

    Tomorrow—A bit of Rallying, a bit more Tarragona and then on to Salou

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    Just curious - why did you choose the hotel you stayed at in Barcelona? I wonder if the neighborhood & having to take a taxi everywhere is one reason you have mixed feelings about Barcelona. We stayed in Eixample several years ago, a very nice and convenient neighborhood, within walking distance of major sites, so I think that could make a difference. We were also in Barcelona for 5 nights, so we were able to see more sites & neighborhoods.

    Enjoying your report. Tarragona sounds interesting.

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    As I mentioned, it was totally an economic choice--we had points so it was free. That made paying for taxis not even close to the cost of a couple nights of a "closer" hotel. I agree with your assessment; as I mentioned, we knew ahead of time that we couldn't walk to the major sites, so my opinion wasn't swayed by that, at least not much. And we knew our time in Barcelona would be just enough for a glance. I think we were both surprised at how fatigued we were on our arrival day, so we did end up enjoying that day less but that was not really as a result of the city itself, just a factor in my overall opinion.

    Thanks for feedback and comments. More later!

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    Texasbookworm,
    I missed that part about the free points in the beginning of your report. I would have made the same choice to save some money :-)
    I'm sure the very long travel time accounts for your jet lag fatigue. But sounds like overall you had a great trip.

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    Staying "for free" is always tempting but sometimes not satisfying

    My last visit to Barcelona I stayed in friends apt. In lower Ramblas.
    Honestly, had it been my first visit to Barcelona I would have had
    a very unflattering
    impression of the city .
    Luckily , I knew better.

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    Thursday--Tarragona and on to Salou and the Rally

    We drove to Salou, packing some snacks for breakfast, parked on the road near the hotel and walked about a mile to an area where the cars were on their practice runs. We watched lots of cars come by on the mud/gravel/dirt section, standing with a crowd at a hairpin curve and seeing the cars sling some gravel and slide around the track a little. Fun. Loud. Big crowd. Lots of cigarettes. Lots of cameras. Lots of beer for early breakfasts! A lady invited me to stand in front of her, and then when she left we had plenty of room with pretty clear view. We stayed for about an hour, with DH practicing with his camera!

    Then it was back to Tarragona to check out of the hotel and walk over to get chocolates. We had a great if limited (because of our lack of Spanish more than because of his lack of English!) conversation with the young man. We gave him the picture; DH asked if they had married and at first we thought he meant no, they were broken up, but we’re pretty sure he meant no, not yet, they were still together. We selected all the dark chocolate “truffles” (shaped like pyramids so not technically a truffle, I guess, but dark chocolate outside and dark chocolate softer creamy inside—heaven!!!!) he had plus some other items. DH asked him where he’d learned his craft, which had been in Barcelona he said, and we learned he was a 4th generation chocolatier, having learned from his father who was following his grandfather’s trade. He packed the chocolates in an insulated bag and we said our farewells.

    Next we walked through the town, stopping at the doner place again. There were tons of market stalls of clothing and household items on the Rambla today, and I found 4 scarves for €8. Then DH led us on past the necropolis, a bullring, and site of Roman theatre. We just looked at the outside of these. Then into the Colony Forum, #6 on our ticket of sites. This was a major deal back when Terraco was a Roman capital. There’s not a lot actually left, mostly just a few huge columns and some road, but it is always fascinating to me to see what’s been uncovered and what’s built so close and around and on top of the ancient stuff. And walking on fragments of Roman roads is amazing.

    After that it was a reluctant goodbye to Tarragona. On the way to Salou DH first figured out how to drive to the beach we could see from our hotel balcony so that we could both touch the Mediterranean. Then he drove me out to a Roman arch, Arc de Bara, a few km’s east of town on what had been the major Roman road leading into the old city.

    MY TAKE ON TARRAGONA—I loved Tarragona. I loved the views. I loved the Roman stuff. I loved the chocolate. I loved the medieval streets. I loved the views. It wasn’t quite as much fun as Trier, nor as cute and pretty, but it reminded me of it somehow. I’d love to go back.

    Our drive to Salou was not long, and we got checked into the Regina Gran. Our room was quite nice and roomy; it was hot in the room at first, as the heater was running although it was warm outside. No AC in winter. But the weather cooled off some and we got heater to stop running, so it was fine the rest of the stay. We walked to the WRC service park, which was quite a hike! (A Service Park for a rally has a large area for servicing vehicles between stages, vendor booths, displays, food, etc.) It was at the Port Aventura amusement park area. The big rally event of this day was a ceremonial start in Barcelona at the cathedral plaza in the evening, but we’d opted not to try to see that. So the service park was rather quiet, with none of the cars and not much of a crowd. DH did some shopping (more looking than shopping but found discount on a jacket). A long walk back but in lovely evening light. We had dinner—buffet as before but this time part of the Rally package deal—and rested. Early rise ahead.

    Tomorrow—Rally!

    Friday—First full day of Rallying!

    Our first full day of rally looked to be partly rainy but not very cold. We went down to breakfast which wasn’t ready yet (I had mixed up the times) but it did open at 5:30. We left immediately after and drove in the dark with Sheila programmed, but we also had the rally info in my lap. Our destination was about 80 km generally west of Salou in a village, Vilalba Dels Arcs, which was to be a midpoint on Stage 3 called Terra Alta. The stage started at 9:19, so cars would be by about 10 minutes after that. We found the village, and now it was light, and now it had started raining some too, and the mountainside buildings and roads were already wet with the rain which wasn’t hard but was making it all messy.

    In the village, which had just one lane winding up and down and in and out of old buildings, cars were already parked everywhichway. We found a policeman directing cars (the rally info said park in the village or as directed on the outskirts by police) and spectators. The village was full of both of those! He directed us into a parking area. And as soon as we began the downhill approach on a rutted, muddy, ungraveled, slick little driveway, DH said, “We’ll never get out of here” but it was too late and we sorta slid to a stop at the end of the steep ramp/driveway thing that had given us access to a muddy field filling up with cars. DH managed to stop just a few inches from a car parked at the end of this rampway—we were glad—the other person moved his car after another car almost slid into him, too!

    We found a spot to park but DH was pretty concerned. We watched a couple more cars do the same slide down the ramp we did. He said we were trapped and stuck and might be here all weekend. But we got out of the car and clambered around the village’s hillsides a bit on ledges, terraces, and muddy tracks. I found a decent spot from which I could see the cars come down a long hill, and he found a spot nearer the hairpin curve they were descending into (but was out of my eyesight).

    Our “how are we going to get this two-wheel-drive, rental car out of this mud” concerns were weighing on us and detracting from our “viewing of the first stage” experience. Nevertheless, DH got some good views of the cars grinding by in the mud and gravel. The rain continued but not heavily for a while. They had a porta potty, ambulance, plenty of security, and plenty of spectators. What was not provided was a good plan for muddy-day parking!

    Before all the cars got through running the stage (but after the “main” ones had gone by), DH decided we’d try to leave. We had watched several non-4-wheel drive cars fail to get back up that ramp. He knew our 2-wheel drive Polo wasn’t going that way either, but he’d watched a couple other cars which had found away out--instead of going up, they’d left the field by going down a shorter ramp to a lower field and then down again and then onto a dirt road. It’s hard to describe. But anyway, he thought we’d try to descend. And he thought we’d better try before it rained more, or other cars messed up the field more. So we backed up—and got stuck in mud of the “parking lot”! A little frustrated. In about 5 minutes a group of guys motioned with some universal signs that they’d push if we wanted—so they did, we got started, and off we slid/drove down a hill-side dirt ramp, across a field, down another muddy ramp and then onto a one-lane paved “road” that corkscrewed up and up and then—well, I don’t really remember, but between Sheila and DH and the maps we had, we did finally get “out” and headed to the next stage. Whew! We were emotionally drained by the near---ok, maybe not near-death experience---but imagining being stuck in the mud in a tiny (I mean tiny) little village where we didn’t speak any Spanish (or Catalan) was a bit scary!

    But now that we were moving again, in the mountains, on windy nice roads, it was all quite picturesque. And the weather had cleared a little and the countryside was very pretty. I think we set a course for near Horta de Sant Joan which was about 30 km away. This was a mid-stage viewing access on Stage 4 which was to start at 1:35 (a 27 km stage they had run earlier that morning as Stage 2.) But when we arrived at the next access point, where we had a bit of a gravelly area to park by the side of the road (not in the mud!), it started raining really hard. It looked like we might have a 2 Km walk or more to the viewing area. They’d barricaded the access road further from the viewing area than our info had indicated. The morning mud trauma and the rain and the extra long walk made DH reluctant to press on—only so much emotional energy available!

    So we punted and drove back to Salou. On the way we were passed a couple times by rally participants, headed to the next stage. So DH pulled over at some roundabout and our patience was rewarded—several cars, including Loeb’s, went by; this was something DH had never seen exactly; he’d seen racers in and around the service park and driving through towns at other Rallies, but he’d not seen them going from stage to stage. So fun. Then we noticed a rally car on a trailer; Petter Solberg had had a minor wreck and the car was being taken back to the service park. He did re-enter the rally the next day, I think. The weather actually improved nearer the coast.

    We rested and then walked to the beach area where they were going to run a very short 2k stage in town about dark. So we found some space at a fence at an end where they make a big turn, set up our stools, and waited. It sprinkled some. It got very very crowded. Guys set up ladders behind us and coughed and smoked on us for the whole time. It wasn’t that fun. But we did have a good view of the cars as they slung by. We stayed for all the WRC group cars and a few others then walked back to the hotel (about a mile?) for dinner, rest, and picture and battery management. Another early morning to come! It hadn’t been the sort of fun and fantastic intro to rally that I think DH had in mind for me, BUT we didn’t get permanently stuck, we had an adventure, and the countryside was absolutely stunning. So a pretty good time was had by all!

    Tomorrow—More Rallly!

  • Report Abuse

    Rallying is the only way to see cars in action. You are so near them you could almost touch them. The push from other spectators is also part of the "scene". The crowds are always friendly and helpful.
    For those who want to know more about the Sport:
    http://www.wrc.com/
    http://youtu.be/0lRQ_zebLes

  • Report Abuse

    ribeirasacra--I haven't attended many auto races, but I have been to probably half a dozen different kinds over the years. The weekend after we got back from the rally, we had the excitement of attending the return of Formula 1 car racing to the USA when we went to a weekend of racing at Austin, Texas, at the brand new Circuit of the Americas. And so from my limited but kinda wide-range experience I'd have to agree with you! Course, for me, the fact that a rally was in Europe made it extra appealing! (Although in 2011 when we went to the Pikes Peak Rally, the crowd was the same sort and the experience of being near the cars the same--it just was only one stage.) And except for a very few people being rude with cameras, you are right about the crowds, at least in my experience in Spain.

  • Report Abuse

    Saturday—Day Two of Rally

    We had breakfast at 5:30 (normal hours like 8 am, but for rally folks they had early opening) and left soon and drove a LOOONNNG way through WINDY roads in the dark and some fog. I mean, really windy roads. Wiggly like corkscrews. And we’ve been in the Rockies and Smokies and other mountainy serpentine ways, but this topped them all! We drove on, though, and reached our destination which was about 90 km from hotel. Sheila’s help plus Rally Travel directions=success! There were security/police present directing us to a fairly large parking area that was NOT muddy. There were several cars already there, and some folks had camped and were finishing their breakfasts. Then we walked a short way to the village la Bisbal de Falset perched on big boulders on the edge of a mountain. This little village of about 250 is surrounded by terraced (would have to be—not a level spot bigger than a large swimming pool or parking area around for miles!) fields of olive trees (and maybe grapes and almonds? I know there were lots of olives). A good many people were already looking for viewing spots.

    We walked around the edge of the village and found a sort of driveway with safety net/fencing/barricade at the end and space for our two stools right at the barrier between a couple small groups of Spaniards. From this spot we saw the cars approach from down hill across from us, cross a small bridge, make a hairpin turn to their left a few yards from us, and roar off, behind us. It was a good venue. The cars—eventually—swept by us one by one. The weather was terrific. It had been coolish when we arrived but warmed and NO rain. There was a single portapotty here. As we left we talked to some other people also with the RallyTravel group. One was on the bus, and one couple was doing the self-drive stuff like us.

    Then it was on to another stage about 55 km away to the southeast, a spot in the mountains south of Prades. Well, the scenery on this now pretty, clear day was breathtaking. Gullies and canyons and mountains and hills and long vistas kept opening up. We were seeing Spanish countryside we’d never have seen if we hadn’t been pursuing rally viewing access! And some more of the most windiest roads (in both quantity and quality) we’ve ever driven on in one day. The only word is corkscrew. We followed the RallyTravel bus for a bit, but he let us pass. It was really incredible driving; so much rugged beauty I hadn’t expected. It was a long drive, but DH was feeling better and actually enjoyed the rally-like driving now that he wasn’t so disoriented by fog and dark on top of the wiggles.

    We made it to the next stage successfully. We had to park on the side of the road about maybe 1 km away. The access road then intersected the stage road. We crossed the stage road and walked up it a few hundred yards. We found a steep bank to set our stools on and had an unobstructed view of the cars as they swept down a gradual hill before us and then made a 90 turn at the intersection of the road we’d parked on and the stage road. The only problem was that, although the day was still mostly sunny, the wind was blowing strong and the wind chill was ferocious. It was COLD. I’d forgotten my gloves. DH shared his, but it was still pretty cold despite our layers.

    While we waited I walked to the top of the hill and there was a great view all the way to the Sea. We waited maybe 90 minutes and finally they started flying by. We watched lots. Then DH and Sheila had arguments about plotting us a course home. Sheila wanted us to go back the shortest way—but that involved using the stage road, which wasn’t open! A couple ways east or west looked equally wiggly. DH finally decided—we went a wiggly way north—pretty—and then past Monestir de Poblet. So pretty. We didn’t even check to see if it was open (about 4 pm?) although DH offered, so we just took a few pix and went on. We hit the highway (C14?) near here for a much straighter drive the rest of the way. We collapsed, rested, handled photos, and ate dinner. This was a much, much more fun day of racing!

    Tomorrow—More Rally

  • Report Abuse

    Rallying is the only way to see cars in action. You are so near them you could almost touch them. The push from other spectators is also part of the "scene". The crowds are always friendly and helpful.
    For those who want to know more about the Sport:
    http://www.wrc.com/
    http://youtu.be/0lRQ_zebLes


    Yes, ribeirasacra, I have been so close, I have scared myself. At Pike Peak Hill Climb last year, I thought I was a goner.

    The YouTube link provides a nice overview of the types of roads and surface conditions we experienced this year in Spain. The mud was horrible and tarmac experts like Loeb were slow on Friday, but once the stages moved to tarmac, he quickly closed the gap.

    The rugged mountains impressed me and am intrigued about what other delights Spain holds. Maybe we'll get over to your side of the country on our next trip!

  • Report Abuse

    Sunday—Last Day of Rallying

    We left in the dark again about 6:30 after early breakfast and drove through sorta windy but dark roads back up into the mountains. This was a closer access, only about 30 km away, near the village of Calldejou. The sky looked pretty clear and the day promised to be mostly nice.

    We got to the designated road to park along the side of—it did have some shoulders but was already blocked off about 1.7 km from the stage access, so we parked and walked uphill in the cold as the sun rose. We passed lots of people who had camped all night as well as some cars who’d “beaten” us. (Numbers are rather meaningless in this report—so I haven’t tried to estimate crowds or cars!).

    We arrived at the venue which was a 3-pronged intersection with rocky banks, some with trees, looking down at the roads. We had driven on T-322 and parked; it intersected an un-numbered road coming from Pratdip to the south that the rally cars would be on; at this intersection, T-322 would become the rally stage road. The unnumbered road was a downhill little road that met the curve of a T-322, and it was on a hillside at this intersection that we found a perch. And I do mean a perch. It was very steep and we actually sat on a rock ledge like a chair; didn’t need our stools. We were about 5 feet above the road. It was COLD! The wind was whipping up the canyon in our faces. DH gave me his Goretex rain pants to put on just as extra layer and his Rally GB toboggan for my hands because I’d forgotten my gloves AGAIN.

    We had arrived about 7:30. We generally had a decent view despite the fairly crowded conditions because the terrain was so steep. Couple heads in the way a couple times. It was cloudy and sprinkled a couple times, creating a full arc rainbow for my amusement. The mountain in front (maybe Mola de Colldejou?) remained covered with fog and clouds at the top almost the whole time. The little village of Colldejou clung to the hillside across the small valley, and the rally road could be seen as it climbed the slope at the foot of the few buildings there. It really was an interesting picturesque spot, just so COLD sitting waiting. No place to walk around for exercise!

    About 9:15 after an 8:51 start the first car arrived. Today it was frontrunner Loeb. Zip. We got to see the car about 3 seconds and then-zip-around the bend it went. Then we could see him across the small valley as the car raced up the side of the mountain in front of us. It was a pretty interesting viewpoint because of the different views of the cars—pretty close (few yards away), then yards away before it turned a corner, and then again on a windy and then sloping road across a valley from us. Just COLD. We watched for about an hour and then even DH got uncomfortable, so we left. Had to be careful as had to scramble up the hillside with numb feet and then back down, being instructed to avoid some barricaded-for-safety areas that would have made our access easier if we’d been able to cut through there. People had been forced to do all sorts of convolutions to get where they wanted, even going through a drainage culvert that must have been under us, to get to a far side. By the time we walked back to the car we were warmer but still chilled and decided that we’d had all the rally-venue-chasing we wanted. (I let DH decide this. He said he’d already seen more stages than at the other 4 rallies he’d attended, so I was glad I hadn’t been too limiting a factor!)

    We headed back to the hotel and got a really close parking spot as most people still out on the venues at about 11. We got a rest, a warm-up and a re-group, and we packed up a little. About noon we drove to the service park and got a spot not too far away at the curb of a big divided roadway beside the Port Aventura entrance. The Service Park was not very busy, as the frontrunners had been through there already for service and gone to next stage, but there were plenty of people. We took pics, got some lunch (ok sandwich but terrific fries), and looked around at vendors.

    When we got back to the hotel we got an even better parking spot which would be great for loading up in the early morning. About 1:30 we walked to the beachfront area where they had things set up for the podium presentations and closing ceremonies about 3. There were already a good many people lined up along one side of the fencing, but we found a spot to sit/stand/view which actually was a wooden bench next to the fence and from which we could see the podium and right by where the cars would go and top guys would walk after the awards. DH thought it would be a decent spot and we’d just wait.

    Then it started raining. Pretty hard. We had our Goretex jackets on which worked perfectly, but our non-Goretexed feet and legs were pretty drippy. At least it wasn’t cold. Then the other people began to arrive. Some guy stood next to me and actually propped his elbow on the fence in front of my line of sight. AHEM! He sorta moved it. Then a couple times guys actually tried to jump on the bench where we were standing and push their camera lenses over or past me. AHEM! And then inside the barricade/fence all the “vip’s” started to arrive—and the support teams and such and now it was a sea of people between me and the podium complete with some really tall guys with hats and a few big umbrellas! By 3 when stuff started happening, it had almost completely stopped raining. Yay! So we really had pretty good views, but there were so many different things in my line of sight that my pics weren’t good.

    Latvala and Hirvonen, who ended this rally in 2nd and 3rd places (while for the whole season Hirvonen placed 2nd, Latvala 3rd) were right next to us for a bit, hugging family (?) and chatting. There were many “things” on the podium to honor Sebastian Loeb’s successes, and by the time he joined Latvala and Hirvonen, he was hurrying away, so we got no spectacular pix of this year’s champion. But we weren’t there as paparazzi really, so it was just mostly fun except for pushy people! It was great to see the victor as he plans to retire (although by the time I am writing this, he is saying that he will still be racing some rallies, just not full-time, I think.)

    As we were pretty wet and ready to go dry out, we didn’t stay for EVERY car that came through; we walked back through neighbourhoods and by shops and such to the hotel about 5:30 and started to dry our stuff out. We did picture-maintenance and packed. We did some relaxing and people watching in the bar area for a bit before dinner and debriefed each other! Had dinner about 7:15 and collapsed early because had to rise soon to leave.

    MY TAKE ON SALOU: I can leave it. Not my sort of place. It worked fine for us as a rally-base, and the hotel was very nice, but as a whole it is too tacky-commercial and tourist/resort-oriented.

    MY TAKE ON AREA AROUND SALOU AND TARRAGONA: I was totally amazed at how lovely, in a rugged, jagged, primitive sort of way, the mountain areas were. I was really surprised at how much we enjoyed them. If we hadn’t been attending the rally, we wouldn’t have driven around like we did, but what a treat to experience that. And the roads were terrific—well-maintained, even the small, narrow, unbusy ones, and well-signed. Lots of roundabouts which was funny.

    MY TAKE ON RALLYING: I’d go again. I’m not really a racing fan in and of itself, but it’s fun to do with DH, and it did enable me to see some spectacular venues! Rally-race-viewing is not relaxing, and it’s not easy; it involves walking and navigating and maybe being uncomfortable in outside weather, but all in all it was an adventure. And I like those kinds of trips (within some safety constraints!) better than travel that is more passive or relaxing.

    Tomorrow—Good-bye to Spain

    Monday—Time to leave

    We got up at 4:30 and left in an hour to drive in the dark along toll roads that cost about €25 but were traffic free. Just be sure to have some change! Near the airport, DH roused a sleepy gas station attendant and got the pumps turned on for a fillup. We found Terminal 1 to return the car and parked it about 6:30 before desk there opened. Inside the terminal we found the Sixt desk to return the key. There was a key drop in the car park, but DH wanted to make sure he talked to the desk personnel.

    We checked in quickly (yay for DH’s Priority Access!), went through security, and found a McD’s breakfast. We shopped around a bit and found some gifts and chocolate. Went through no-line Passport control area and then to AA lounge, which was quite nice. Our 10 AM flight took off at 10:09. We landed early at JFK. A precious looking toddler girl across the aisle had screamed and fussed for many of the 9 hours we flew, so neither of us did more than nap. There was NO wait at the JFK Passport control! I had dreaded this. My only other time through JFK was two years ago and it was the worst re-entry I’d ever had—crowded, rude “help,” disorganized lines. It had taken almost an hour. But this day—zip zip. There was a short wait for the bags and no wait for security (other than being behind a couple who between the two of them used 8 bins!!). We then had a longish wait but I really prefer having too much time rather than tight, anxiety-provoking connections! The flights to DFW and home were ok. My bag arrived with a broken wheel, for which we got a travel voucher, not new/fixed bag, but such are the vagaries of travel.

    Once again, glad to have gone, glad to be home!

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