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Trip Report Catalonia: 14 days in September

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Okay, here goes. I always have these sincere intentions of writing a trip report when I get home...then I get back and I'm overwhelmed with catching up. So, instead of writing when I get home, I'll start now, halfway through my trip. Our trip was 4 days in Barcelona plus a 10-day driving tour through Catalonia and the Pyrenees.

First, introductions. The travelers are my wife and I are in our mid 60's. Have been to 20+ countries and always prefer independent travel. We usually try to get a guide for at least part of the trip, especially if we are in a country where guides and cars aren't too pricey (read: not Europe). My wife hates walking; I love walking and hiking, which leads to some interesting potential conflicts, which we have done a rather good job of resolving. More on that later.

This was our first trip to Catalonia. We have been to Spain once before (Madrid and Anadlucia), but never this Catalonia. It seemed that this part warranted its own vacation.

Figuring out where to go is always the hardest part of independent travel. The big city part (I.e. Barcelona) is rather easy to figure out, but should we go north? South? West??? In some countries we have hired an in-country travel agent to advise us. That has worked out very well (we usually find agents by trolling on Fodors and TA). For Catalonia I just did a lot of reading on Fodors and TA. Since at this writing we are just at the beginning of our trip, I can't yet say whether I did a great job.

I always plan where we are going; my wife always picks where we are staying. I'm a cheapskate: Motel "7" would be good enough for me. I intend to spend the least possible time in the room. My wife spends much more time in the room. She'll go about anywhere as long as these few requirements are met: safe, not cold, modern bathroom. So, four stars minimum for her.

On to the trip.


Well, let me pause here to say: I have absolutely nothing negative to report about Barcelona. Everything functions well; the city is relatively clean; the bathrooms are clean; the people are nice; the traffic isn't too bad. For sure, you won't want to have a rental car in the city.

I spent the past year having once-a-week Spanish lessons. I am still just a beginner. I knew that everyone in the tourist industry would be happy to speak English to me, and indeed they were. I had to tell them I wanted to practice my Spanish. So, if you don't speak Spanish, that isn't an issue at all. Only the taxi drivers spoke no English. And, BTW we were never cheated by a taxi driver, or anyone else. AND re safety, we never felt unsafe anywhere, including leaving a restaurant at midnight on a small street in the center of town. I had read a lot about pickpockets in places like La Rambla. Well, I'm sure they are there. And I'm sure there are at least as many in my home city. I live in a city that bills itself as having the lowest crime rate of any large city in the US. I'm sure that is true. But in our four days of walking around Barcelona I passed by fewer "yucky" people than in my own hometown. The usual caveats of travel apply. Enough said.

To get started in Bacelona we hired a private guide for our first 2 1/2 day. Alberto Fernandez. I can truly recommend him. It was more like walking around with a friend, rather than having a guide recite "on this spot, in 1815, the following happened..." Alberto was referred by a friend, who had used him before. It has been so many months since we booked the trip that I don't recall what we paid him, but it was definitely less than I heard others having paid. You can reach Alberto at [email protected]

The big tourist sites (such Sagrada Familia) were easy enough to see on our own, due the the generally excellent audio guides. I found the time with Alberto most useful in doing a walking tour of the historic (and labyrinthine) El Born and Barrio Gothic.

We stayed Hotel Gran Via, a botique hotel in the Eixample neighborhood. A hotel is a very personal choice, and there are enough posts on TA that I won't get into reviews here. BUT I will praise the location of my hotel. Very central. Most sights were within walking distance and the others a short taxi ride away (my wife isn't into taking the bus). Let me just say that I was very happy with the hotel.

So, Day 1 was a walking tour of El Born and Barrio Gothic. Highly recommended. I also went to the National Museum, which was pretty good....but there are lots of equal or better art museums in most major cities.

Stopped at the huuuuge department store Corte de Ingles. That was a total waste. It looked just like Macy's...even the brands were the same. I found much better shopping on Avenida de Gracia. Some of it was beyond my personal budget, but I did snag a number of things.

Everywhere in Barcelona...lot of people walking around. Busy city. Lots of cars, but all cars and people obey "the rules." Everyone is nice.

Dinner at El Mussol, a tapas restaurant near our hotel. Good, but I suspect there are many other equal restaurants. We haven't had a bad meal yet in Spain. I'm not going to get into a lot of food commentary other than to make a comment on the wine. I am a pretty big wine drinker. In Spain, I have had LOTS of good to great wine. And the prices are verrrry reasonable. About half of what I'm used to at home.

Day 2: Montserrat. We took the train (shepherded by Alberto) to Montserrat (1 hour each way). For us, it wasn't very impressive. With most tourist sites, whether they are impressive or not depends a lot on the past experience of the tourist. So, Montserrat is a Benedictine monastery, most of which is only 100-200 years old (parts are older). The venerated "Black Virgin" statue, supposedly found in a cave by some children...or shepherds...wasn't worth standing in line (you can see it from the distance in the main room). But, I'm sure lots of folks love Montserrat. Especially if they find a religious connection.

Day 3: Sagrada Familia, the masterpiece of Gaudi. This is an absolute must. Construction started in 1874 and is supposed to be done in 10 more years (100th anniversary of Gaudi's death). This church looks like no other. The audio guide is very good.

Be sure to make reservations in advance (online). Also, you can (and should) reserve to go up the tower. The reservations are all timed. They allow 500 people per hour, which is great cuz then it doesn't get crazy-crowded.

Day 4: my wife was tired, so she hung out in our room for most of the day. I revisited the El Born and Barrio Gothic neighborhoods on my own. Went into the cathedral. The cathedral is nice, but if you have already seen a bazillion European cathedrals this one won't bring new meaning to your life.

Thank goodness we have GPS these days. None of the streets in El Born and Gothic are straight. And I have a bad sense of direction. Were it not for GPS, I'd still be there.

The afternoon on Day 4 was a trip to Guell Palace, the home designed by Gaudi for his patron, Count Eusibi Guell. Very nice. Again, a great audio guide.

Then on to Guell Park, at the north end of town. I'm not so sure the park was worth the trip. Yes, it is somewhat of an oasis in a bit city. But, it never developed at Guell intended when he started it as a residential subdivision in 1900. Guell may have been a brilliant industrialist, but he flopped as a developer. Only two houses were ever built (one as a show house; Gaudi was living in it when he died). If you do go to Guell Park, be sure to reserve tickets in advance; they are for specific time.

On our last evening we attended a flamenco concert at the Music Palace (Palau Musica). This was our favorite part of Barcelona. The venue is beautiful. As to the concert, the musicians and dancers were spectacular. The main musician this particular evening was guitarist Pedro Javier Gonzalez. Often when I see things like this advertised I wonder whether they are just something cheesy, for tourists. No way. These are top-flight performers. So impressive.

If you want to attend a concert at Palau Music, reserve online. I reserved only on the morning of concert and there seemed to be a lot of seats left. much for Barcelona. We left on Day 5. And that is probably a long enough post for now. To be continued.

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    Great report, keep it coming! Glad to hear you enjoyed Barcelona in general and the flamenco in Palau de la Música. Contrary to what many people think, Barcelona is a major flamenco city, and the finest flamencos on the planet perform here all the time. Going myself in a few weeks to see living legend José Mercé in the Palau.

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    Really enjoying your report! So many similar experiences and reactions to Barcelona. Loved attending a concert in the Palau de la Musica. Eager to follow along as your travel north and into the Pyrenees. . .something we almost did this September. Instead, we were in the South of France. We look forward to hearing more of your adventures.

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    To add to what kimhe and tomarkot wrote, I suspect all the concerts at Palua de la Musica are high end. I don't think any mediocre artists get invited.

    Okay, before I totally leave is a big problem I had, and others may have, in planning this trip. Where should I go? I didn't have a travel agent arranging the rest of our trip. I read the Michelin Guide and a lot on Fodors and TA. One can spend countless hours researching, and still make some goofs. Well...maybe not goofs, but better decisions could have been made. More about that in Cadaques.

    Some of our most successful trips have been where an in-country travel agent helped us plan the agenda. We didn't have that advantage for Catalonia. I suppose that is why some folks just sign up for package tours. That isn't for us, but it sure cuts down on the time needed to figure out a route.

    For Americans, there is always as temptation to try to touch a lot of countries, since everything is so close together -especially by California standards. But spending too much time in a car isn't the best way to travel. One can zoom by great sights. Also, my wife's back gives her trouble if we spend too long in a car. So, I resolved to make it hotel stop not so very far away, and we would make side trips if our interest and timer supported them.

    We had to take a taxi from our hotel in downtown Barcelona to pick up our car at the airport (35E or so). Our next stop was to be Madremanya, which is about a two-hour drive from Barcelona and 20 minutes from the regional hub of Girona. Why Madremanya? Simply because an American friend, who grew up near Barcelona had stayed at a specific hotel and really liked it. Nothing more complex than that.

    Next we were faced with the choice of alternate routes. Each person we asked gave us different advice. We decided to take the coastal route, C37, from Barcelona north. Why? Well, it seemed like a charming idea, driving along the coast, with the road hugging the Mediterranean. Maybe something out of a 1950s Cary Grant and Grace Kelly movie, sans convertible Sunbeam Alpine. WRONG!

    Instead we drove through one mediocre town after another, with nary a glimpse of the ocean. Finally at Blanes we turned inland on A-19. Following the advice of one alternative in the Michelin book, we drove to the hill town of Sant Feliu.

    This reminded me of the other time we were in Spain, five years ago. That was our first trip, and I thought there would be nothing more charming than winding our way through little pueblos from Madrid to Andalucia in the south. WRONG! That was seven hours of the most boring driving every. 90% was olive orchards and the rest vineyards. Not a village to be seen from the superhighway. We would have been better off taking a train or flying. We wasted a day each way. This is why is so important to do a lot of research (I thought I had) or get local advice.

    So, back to Catalonia. As mentioned, we took a side trip, northwest of Girona, into the hills. This was on C63, to the little town of Sant Feliu. The drive really wasn't all the impressive. Yes, some nice old buildings in Sant Feliu and enroute, but nothing amazing.

    We arrived in Madremanya (15 mins eas of Girona) staying at Placa de Madremanya, which is about 600 years old. 11 rooms. Highly recommend and a good value. The hotel restaurant was quite high end. We ate there both nights of our stay. If you look at TA, almost all of the mediocre ratings are from Spaniards complaining about the price. Well, that all depends on your expectations. It was 20% more expensive than the four dinners we had in Barcelona, but it was 50% nicer. Excellent service.

    I suspect Madremanya is like countless hill towns in the Girona region. There are surely other similar choices. But, we were quite charmed by this place. A small village that can be covered on foot in a short time. Nice.

    From our base in Madremanya, we drove to the coast. Our next stop on our day tour was Ullastret. The drive there from Madremanya was very peaceful, through agricultural areas, with vistas of ancient towns. Exactly the opposite of our boring drive, mentioned previously, from Madrid to Analucia. We were really just heading toward the coast, but stopped by Ullastret.

    Now, my wife isn't interested in archeology or anything ancient, but here I am just the opposite. Ullastret is a settlement that predates the Romans by several centuries. The audio guide is excellent.There weren't a lot of people there. Rather peaceful.

    The museum seems well done, but one can only look at so many pieces of pottery. The signs are only in Spanish and French, but it wasn't hard to get the gist of them.

    From Ullastret we continued to the coast, through Begur to Sa Riera. Very nice beach at Sa Riera. We had lunch there, before heading back to Madremanya.

    To be continued...

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    Enjoyed your report! We agree about Barcelona and never had a problem when we stayed ten nights prior to a Transatlantic cruise. Had the opportunity to get to Cadaques, Figueres & Portlligat, as well as Montserrat area. Would return again in a heartbeat. Great read, thanks!

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    Cowabunga! Good thing I didn't title this "A Short Report". Well, I figure anyone that is still reading wants some insightful tips, and that takes a bunch of words. Perhaps it was Mark Twain that wrote "if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."

    Correction to my last post. I wrote that we had a side trip from Girona to San Feliu. It was actually to Santa Pau...on C66. For those that have the Michelin Guide, it is mentioned on p. 354-355. Also, in fairness to this route, we didn't do a lot of stopping. The views from the road weren't all that impressive. But we did not, for example, stop at Besalu (which Michelin gave two stars).

    Let me also jump back to my previous discussion on Barcelona. We happened to be there on Catalan National Day, which commemorates some bad things that happened in 1715 (War of the Spanish Secession). These days it is often a rallying day for those seeking to separate Catalonia from Spain. Now, I am commenting ONLY as a tourist, as I understand the whole secession issue is a sensitive subject. I just want to add that I was near the center of town late that afternoon (after returning from Monserrat) and everything seemed quite calm to me. Hundreds of people wearing special t-shirts in favor of secession, and dozens carrying Catalan flags. But, all seemed to me very calm.

    I am only mentioning this because in these days of terrorism and refugees it is easy to get scared out of going anywhere other than to your neighbors' for dinner. The media reports whatever is extraordinary, of course. So, I'm just giving you my vote to go to Barcelona, and enjoy it.

    Back to our trip. On our second day in the Madremanya area of Girona province we again took a drive to the coastal area, driving to Saint Feliu, then on to Tossa Del Mar. Our hotel host mentioned that he didn't like Lloret de Mar very much, but that was exactly where we ended up at lunchtime. There Is a long beach, relatively crowded, with a lot of cheap, somewhat cheesy restaurants. Maybe when I was 25 I would have found the scene appealing, but not now. Fortunately, we found an appealing, simple restaurant (Iguana) on a side street, where I had one of my best salads of the trip, along with some fish. And, wine. Always wine. Did I mention that yet? Oh, yeah. I guess so.

    At Blanes, we turned inland, then took A2 back through Girona and to our hotel in Madremanya.

    The next morning we said goodbye to Madremanya and headed to Cadaques'. Why Cadaques? Well, mainly because it is on the coast (my wife loves water) and Michelin gave the town two stars! Such a simpleton am I.

    Cadques' totally deserves the two stars. We were a bit unfortunate in arriving Friday night at a time when there was a BIG ocean marathon swimming competition the next day. 1,500 were registered, so add to that number the swimmers' boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, grandparents...The entire town was booked solid. We had a very nice room (Hotel la Playa) with a balcony looking out at the ocean, with little road between the water and our hotel. For two days there was a near relentless stream of cars, motorcycles and pedestrians going by. And, Saturday night rock music until 3 AM.

    By Sunday afternoon, everything had returned to what I think it is the "true" Cadaques. The traffic had dropped by 90%. Wow. So, I can highly recommend this town. Small, but not too small. Picturesque. If I were from chilly Northern Europe maybe I would buy an apartment here.

    So, here is the travel tip I should have learned long ago:

    check with hotel, before you book, to find out whether there are any big competitions, festivals or holidays scheduled when you are thinking of visiting.

    We had booked four nights here. After two days, we felt there was nothing more to do, so we cut our time here short by one day. Were I from the frozen north, I probably would be content to just lie on the beach with a book. But...I always want to see something more.

    Before leaving Cadaques, I'll mention that I tried to visit the house and museum of Salvador Dali. The tickets were all sold out. So, if you haven't already figured out from my previous report:

    Always check online to see whether reservations are needed

    The need for reservations isn't an entirely bad. That way you know the venue won't be overly crowded when you get there. But, you do have to plan ahead.

    We also took a drive to Parque Cap de Creus. It was so windy we really couldn't get out and enjoy a hike. The road was very narrow and winding. I don't think I'm a weenie when it comes to driving, but the Europeans seemed much more accustomed to navigating the narrow roads. I felt like the ancient grandpa, holding everyone else up. Even so, I managed to scratch our rental car against a big bush in a narrow area :-(

    To be continued...

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    May I ask how you found the drive from Figueres to Cadaques? How does it compare to the road to Parque Cap de Creus? Regarding the latter, which you described as narrow and winding, is there a line down the middle of the road and is it paved all the way?

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    Good questions, Diamantina. And the answers may be of help to others planning a similar trip.

    The drive from Figueres to Cadaques takes just 45 minutes. About half of that is over a rather winding road. As to whether that is difficult depends a lot on the traveler. For someone from flat Kansas, yes. I am used to the mountainous roads of my native California and have travelled extensively in breathtaking Western Norway. And, here we can read "breathtaking" to apply to both the beauty and the scary factor.

    The road to Cadaques was not particularly difficult. There were a lot of drivers eager to go faster than me, but they weren't pushing rudely (here, or in anywhere else in this polite country). And there were a few places to pull over. So, no big problem.

    As to the road to Cap de Creus, that was a LOT more narrow. No line down the middle -too narrow for that. I even saw some chubby service vans travel that road. How they do it is beyond me.

    It isn't that road hangs over the ocean in a scary way or that the roadbed is excessively winding. It is just that the width for two cars passing is less than I am used to.

    But, there is a good alternative. There is a little train (that looks like it belongs in Disneyland) that goes twice a day from downtown Cadaques to the park. It only stops for 15 minutes at the park, so it isn't a good alternative for those that might want to do a hike there. But, as to just enjoying the route it is a good choice.

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    Thank so much for all the info about roads around Cadaques. If all goes as planned, we'll be staying at Playa Sol next month for a couple of nights. We're also spending a night in Girona and we were trying to figure out which town would be better as a base for visiting the Dali Museum in Figueres. Your post also served to remind me to buy tickets in advance for Dali's house and museum in Cadaques.

    Good to know about the little train to Cap de Creus. We'll probably skip this side trip if it's windy (as it was when you were there).

    We're originally from Northern California (Marin County) and live on the South Island of New Zealand now, so we're used driving on curvy, narrow roads that look like they weren't meant to be used for both coming and going. But I don't necessarily enjoy driving on such roads! So I appreciate being forewarned. There's also probably more traffic on the Cap de Creus road than there is on many of our South Island roads.

    Thanks again.

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    Klondike, I can absolutely see that Girona would be a good base for exploring. And entirely different vibe than Cadaques, which has more of a resort feels. Girona is very central, and exactly on the point of my next "chapter."

    Before we leave Cadaques, let me add one thing and the reason we are checking out a day early. Cadaques is rather isolated. To get there, you travel over a mountain range, down a rather windy road. Once in the little bay, it isn't so easy to take day trips elsewhere. This is not an actual negative of the location, depending on your desires, but if you are thinking of going there you can't tell the relative isolation just by looking at a map.

    Before we left Cadaques, I made one more decision: to make paella when we get home. It doesn't look that hard to make. Through the wonders of Amazon, I ordered all the stuff I will need. It will be waiting when we return. I didn't tell my wife; it will be a surprise. I'll keep her out of the kitchen, then call out whatever is Spanish for "voila!" when it is ready.

    Our stop was to be Puigcerda, where we are as I write this. The various mapping programs gave me three alternative routes, all of nearly identical time. I asked a couple of people which was best; they didn't know. I had previously tried to figure this out on Fodors and TA. So, I just guessed and decided to drive north, into France (near Perpignan), then take N116 to the Pyrenees.

    Heck, at least that way I could say I had taken my wife to the South of France ;-)
    And, exactly what is so magical about "South of France"? I have never been there, so I'm not knocking it. But, the water that was flowing by Cadaques yesterday is on the beaches of France today. Has anyone ever boasted of a trip to Northeast of Spain? No.

    And, what's with that little "of" anyway? Nobody says Southern France. I'll bet some southern France marketer years ago cooked up plan (best to read this with a faux French accent): "Pierre, let's call this the South OF France in our ads. I'll bet we can imply something very special and charge 20% more than without the 'of' ."

    Once in the Pyrenees, I don't suppose a tree or a rock knows whether it is in Spain or France. N116 is an excellent road. At first, traveling west from Perpignan, I thought "this is no big deal," but as we climbed higher the valley became tighter. A mixed hardwood forest gave way to a pine forest.

    A great stop on the way is Villefranche-de-Conflent. You can't miss it; it's right beside the road. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth a stop. Founded in 1092, it started as a fort. We had lunch and spent about an hour here.

    Driving further I thought "how did people make a living here, years ago?" It seemed so steep and rocky. But, once on top of the Pyrenees the terrain flattened out considerably and we say what seemed to be vast hayfields (only say 15 cows, so I don't know what they're doing with all that hay).

    The Pyrenees that we have seen so far surely aren't as dramatic as the jagged Alps. But, still picturesque.

    We arrived at Puigcerda in the late afternoon. The hotel reception (Hotel Villa Paulita) recommended a restaurant in Llivia, a 15-minute drive away, Cal Cofa. We found it, after getting lost a few times. It turned out to be a delightful experience with attentive staff. Once again, I sampled some excellent wines, at amazing prices. Today I'm going to stop by a wine store. And when I get back home, I'm gonna turn some of my wine attention to Spanish wines.

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    And, speaking of Llivia, if you are a bit of a map freak, as I am, look at a map of "Llivia, Spain." You'll see it is a tiny island, surrounded by France. A result of the Treaty of the Pyrenees a couple of centuries ago.

    Puigcerda isn't a tiny hamlet. It is the main city of this district and the capital of Cerdanya. Elevation 1200 meters. It has the look of upscale ski resort, which it apparently is. The man in the information office said there are 14 ski resorts nearby. Lots of nice-looking buildings. If you get there, be sure to climb up the Belltower of St. Mary (2 1/2 E). The Belltower is the only remaining structure of the old Gothic church (1177). The 360-degree view is impressive; You can pick up a free map for a self-guided walking tour of the town center. Nothing too amazing, but fine if you are there.

    Wen stayed at Hotel Villa Paulitas, which right next to the lake that has long served as the town's water supply. Not all room are the same; we start in the historic house, which seem rather charming (Room 15...very nice). Three minute walk into town.

    Overall, Puigcerda was a nice stop, but no a highlight of the trip There are many other options in the Pyrenees. However, some are so tiny you aren't going to find many services there.

    We headed west out of Puigcerda, on N260. The road on our entire Pyrenees trip was excellent. We made a brief stop in the hamlet of Bellver...just to walk around for a few minutes. The church was closed (as it is in most of these towns), but we wandered the steep, narrow streets.

    Next, heading for La Seu d'Urgell. BUT being just a few miles from Andorra, my wife wanted to see it, even if briefly. I had read one poster say it is "nothing more than a shopping center with a ski resort attached." That provided to be our experience. We never made it to Andorra Del Vella -we turned back south to head to La Seu d'Urgell.

    The drive continued to be very attractive, through agricultural area, with numerous ancient villages and fortresses apparent.

    La Seu d'Urgell has much to be recommended to the tourist. The museum and adjacent basilica were worth the visit. Be sure to go the museum first; pick up the paper guide in English -otherwise you'll have no idea what you are looking at.

    Across the street from the basilica is the five-story City museum. Also worth a look.

    We stayed in in the town's "parador." Paradores are converted government-owned monasteries, castles or convents. I had always heard that one MUST stay in a parador...they are something fantastic. But this one wasn't any better (or worse) than many of our other stops. You really didn't have the feeling of being in a monastery.

    From here we drive the pleasant 2.5 hours to Tarragona. Summarizing our trip north from Cadaques, through the Pyrenees and then to Tarrgona, it was an excellent driving tour I can absolutely recommend.

    Next up: Tarragona.

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    I'm probably stating the obvious, but at Playa Sol in Cadaques be sure to get a room looking out to the ocean. The balconies are very nice and I spent many hours there looking over the scene below.

    You mentioned that you are going there next month. Book very soon. We thought we were going a bit off season, but when we started trying to book rooms five months ago we found a lot of out top choices were already full. In general, we found most of the tourist attractions and restaurants to be pretty busy.

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    Thanks, nhulberg. I appreciate it. We booked an ocean view room a few weeks ago. Providing the weather is still pleasant, sitting on the balcony for hours sounds perfect, certainly more relaxing than driving the road to Cap de Creus. Not sure we'll do that one. I booked the Dali House tour in Cadaques Portlligat a couple of days ago, after you reported on not being able to get in.

    I couldn't buy tickets in advance for the Dali Museum in Figueres, but I contacted the museum and they informed me there was no need for advanced tickets in October. We shall see.

    I was tempted to switch our Barcelona accommodations to Hotel Gran Via after reading your report.

    Thanks again for you excellently detailed report. I'm sure it will help others besides me with planning.

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    Excellent, Diamantina. I'm glad you have that ocean-view in Cadaques booked. As to Hotel Gran Via, well, a hotel is a very personal choice. I love a small botique hotel; my wife could go for a western chain.

    On to the last installment of this trip report.

    By reaching Tarragona we have covered Catalonia, north to south, traveling in a counterclockwise direction. We had two nights in Tarragona.

    Just 90 minutes south of Barcelona, this is no small city: 140K, plus adjacent communities (of course, dwarfed by Barcelona with 1.5M+). Some years ago, this area cooked up the name "Costa Dorado" (Daurada in Catalan.."gold coast") cuz they were tired of the marketing attention going to Costa Brava. Well, there certainly is a very long, nice beach here. It seemed rather thinly populated when we were here.

    This is an ancient city, predating the Romans. My wife isn't much interested in history, but I can't get enough. I took a three-hour private tour and really enjoyed it. The guide was Xavier Mejuto Nogues. I have had many, many tours by licensed guides and Xavier ranks among the best. 18 years experience. You can find reviews on TA, or find him at his agency,

    A Roman amphitheater remains, along with a forum, where they raced chariots during the Roman era. Many other sights. View of the Mediterranean from the end of La Rambla.

    We had some trouble finding a centrally-located decent hotel, so I'll mention that we ended up at Hotel Astari, a solid three-star hotel. We were happy with it (especially because we had originally book a place we figured out was in a lousy location; we forfeited the charge for one night).

    As I write this, trip is winding down. Although Tarragona is just 90 minutes south of the airport, my wife was just too nervous about spending our last night so far from the airport (we have an 11:30 AM flight). I'm built rather differently, but, hey, marriage is about compromise. My wife had booked our last night at an airport hotel (I hated the idea), but on our last day in Tarragona she changed her mind (hurray!) and decided we could spend our last night back in Barcelona.

    So, here we are at Hotel Royal. We returned the car, and will taxi 30 minutes to the airport in the morning. With just a bit of time left to see some of the city, we took the Hop on Hop Off bus. Certainly, it would be wise to do this at the beginning of a Barcelona stay, rather than at the end.

    The cost is about 28E. There are two different companies that run these tours. We were on Barcelona Bus Turistic, and I thought it worked well. There is no other way to get an overview of this big city.

    So, one last night out for dinner. We'all be going to Terra Ca La Nuri in the Eixample neighborhood. We were there at the beginning of this trip, and really liked it. BUT I can say we didn't have a bad meal on this entire trip. So much good food, but kinda unusual for me that most meals don't have any veggies, other than potatoes. Most restaurants didn't even have the choice to order veggies a la carte, so I usually ordered a salad (lots of great salads).

    Overall, a great trip. I'm trying to think of anything negative to report to you Fodorites. Well...there sure are a lot of cigarette smokers. I love to eat outdoors, but I pretty much figured out the main reason others choose outdoor seating is so they can smoke. But, hey, that's Southern Europe.

    We didn't meet a rude person or see a rude driver. The cities are cleaner than I expected -the average public restroom is cleaner than in my home town (now, that's the REAL test of a civilized society!). Fewer beggars or homeless than I'm used to in my own region (which has one of the strongest economies in the US). From reading the press, I know that Spain isn't doing well economically. Catalonia is bit better than average for the nation, but still unemployment is about 19% and for those under 25 it is about 44%. So, I thought I would see a lot of unhappy people hanging out and doing whatever unhappy, unemployed people do. Not, I am NOT making an economic or social analysis here; this is just a travel report. And my report is that, as a tourist, I thought things looked rather okay.

    So much history. So many alternatives, based on what you are looking for. Such a great trip. I hope I have been able to give a few tips, or entertain those who have already trod this same ground. to our last dinner.

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    Thank you for the report!

    Am I right that you were in Tarragona yesterday? I hope you managed to see some of the events of the fiesta de Santa Tecla. It was a pretty crazy day with lots of processions and events.

    Safe travels home!

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    Yes, rialtogirl, I was indeed there for the Fiesta de Santa Tecla. I didn't write about it, since I thought it might not be of interest for anyone not there on the specific day in the future.

    But...since you prompted was indeed a crazy day. At first I thought "dang, I hate being here on a busy day." Then, I decided to just go with it. I noticed people starting to sit on the steps of the cathedral at about 5PM. A nearby waiter said it was for "the parade."

    I had no idea what that was or when it started, but decided to sit and wait. At about 6 PM, it started. Such a huge parade. There must have been a thousand people in the parade and more watching. All sorts of characters...dragons, tall people. Also, folk dancing and musicians. A great happy street scene. It went on for hours.

    The festival runs for, I think, about 10 days. But Friday and Saturday are the biggest.

    On Saturday afternoon we arrive in Barcelona and noticed that all the stores were closed. What??? Turned out this is the La Merce Festival, Barcelona's biggest annual street party. On the way to the airport this morning (Sunday) our taxi driver mentioned that people were still walking the streets this morning at 4 and 5 AM, suffering from too much alcohol. He was speaking Spanish and used a word I didn't know before: "zombies." Not too hard to translate that.

    So, adding these to Catalan National Day and considering that we were only in Catalonia for 14 days, we suuuure ran into a lot of celebrations.

    A few hours ago we returned home. No more partying for me for a while. But I did pick up some Spanish wine at my local grocery store tonight. I'll be cooking in my new paella pan later this week!

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    Just a small comment on the Sept. 11 National day of Catalunya (La Diada), conmemorating the loss of independence to Spain and Madrid in 1714. You must have been at the wrong place at the wrong time or the right place at the right time ;-), because this is huge. Here from the 200 years "anniversary" and before the first attempt of a referendum for independence from Spain in November 2014. A couple of millions on the streets in the center of town:

    And perhaps even more powerful. In every so called El Classico match in Camp Nou in Barcelona between the two best soccer teams in the world FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, for ages 90 000 catalans start shouting their claim to "independencia" at 17 minutes 14 seconds into every match:

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    ... and the Catalan National day is very civilized and nothing to be afraid of, and at the football match the players on the field knows of course exactly what "independencia" vawe to expect from the crowds.

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    nhulberg, what a great trip. I love that you just happened upon cultural events that some people plan well ahead for. Great timing.

    May I ask a boring question? Did you have any trouble paying tolls on your driving trip? Did your rental car have a transponder or did you pay manually?

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    The toll question is actually a good one, Diamantina. I was confused the first couple of times I went through them. I didn't have a transponder, so I had to pay manually. Fumbling for the correct coins while cars backed up behind me was a bit stressful.

    Eventually I figured out it was easiest just to pay with a credit card

    Kimhe, as to the crowds on Catalan Day, I returned from Montserrat at 4 PM, coming to our hotel near Placa de Gracia. I do think I missed the biggest crowds. But I heard from our guide that the crowd was a lot smaller than in 2014. Still, a big deal.

    But, my main point is the same one you make: it is "very civilized and nothing to be afraid of." It is very easy to for tourists to pick up a couple of incidents from the media and think that a certain country should be avoided.

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    I'm just back from the same region and share your enthusiasm. Thanks for describing Ullastrett which deserves more recognition. The audio guide to the archaeologicial was very competently assembled (and free!) Girona certainly is worth a stop and can be reached by the high-speed train. The Salvador Dali museum in Figueres surprisingly softened my long-standing suspicions of the flamboyant self-promoter. And the beaches are fine, especially as the season winds down.

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    Once again, thanks, nhulberg. You've saved us some fumbling and confusion at the toll booth. We've reserved a car with Sixt, and I didn't even see the option for a transponder.

    Getting closer to leaving for our own trip. I'm a bundle of nerves! Your help in preplanning has helped settle them a bit.

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    Diamantina: we rented from Hertz. They didn't ask whether we wanted a transponder, and I didn't think to ask. I kinda think it wasn't an option. We were in Croatia last year, and there we did get seemed to be automatically included.

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    Thank you, nhulberg. I am just planning next years trip, so this is very helpful. We want to start in San Sebastián and end in Barcelona, so our route will be a bit different but I have certainly enjoyed your recommendations and tips.

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