Spring break in Spain (again): Carcassonne, Barcelona, and Mallorca

Two years ago we took a 14-day driving tour through Spain and Portugal for spring break and we liked it so much we decided to do it again this year.  Only to different places.  In 2013 by the time we reached Barcelona we were tired and ready to be home so we pretty much drove right past it and made a beeline for the house.  This year we decided not to go so far and spend a little more time in each place.

The first stop was on the French side of the border in the medieval walled city of Carcassonne.  The weather was mild and we had a pleasant drive down and found our B&B easily.  We dropped the bags and headed off to see the fortifications (and the shops).  Carcassonne has been settled since the Neolithic period and it’s strategic hilltop location was not lost on the Romans, who occupied it until the fall of the Roman Empire.  It’s “modern” form is generally recognized as the restoration work of architect and theorist Eugene Voillet-le-Duc in 1853.  Today is is a popular tourist destination.

We climbed the hill up to the city gates and poked through the chateau and the basilica.  Pope Urban II blessed the foundation stones of the basilica – the same Pope who launched the first crusade right here in Clermont-Ferrand in the same year of 1096.  After exploring the town and picking up some souvenirs we settled into a nice outdoor restaurant in a sheltered courtyard and sampled some of the local cuisine.  I tried the Cassoulet de Carcassonne, a locally famous casserole of white beans, pork sausage, and duck.  Sarah had mussels and fries.  Kate had duck.  We all ate well!

The next day we set off for Spain.  Our hostess at the B&B had advised us that there was a nice little town on the coast that wasn’t too far off our route and would make a nice picnic lunch destination.  We decided to take her advice and detour through Collioure and see the waterfront Chateau Royal, home to Spanish and Mallorcan kings.

Chateau Royal de Collioure
Chateau Royal de Collioure

The B&B hostess hadn’t steered us wrong.  The day was cloudless and mild and the stroll through town and subsequent drive along the twisty winding coastal road was spectacular.

Collioure harborfront
Collioure harborfront

We picnicked on a bluff overlooking the clear blue Mediterranean sea at another small village nestled up against the Spanish border.

Beachfront Collioure
Beachfront Collioure

Along the way we saw many small vineyards dotting the hillsides.  It looked like pretty arid terrain to me but evidently the grapes liked it, judging from the number of vines.

Coastal vineyards along the French/Spanish coast
Coastal vineyards along the French/Spanish coast

I decided if I were to become a vintner that this would definitely be the place to give it a try.

Mediterranean village of Cerbere
Mediterranean village of Cerbere

We drove through a couple more picturesque towns, climbed a steep headland crossing over into Spain, and eventually meandered back to the Autoroute to resume our trek to Barcelona.

We made our way into Barcelona proper and fought crazy Spanish traffic into the center of the city to our apartment rental.  Our hostess Joan spoke excellent English and took time to show us around the historic old apartment.  We were right in the heart of the city and within walking (or metro) distance to everything so we happily put the car in the garage and ignored it for the next three days!  Sarah quickly found a hammock on the terrasse and claimed it for the duration of our stay.  We still had plenty of daylight so we headed out for a snack and some people watching.  Sarah quickly caught on to the game of “spot the American tourist” and we had fun trying to figure out who the Yanks were (besides us).  We made our way down toward the water and the Gothic quarter window shopping and enjoying the nice wide sidewalks and open airy feeling of the place.

I was amused to see street musicians all through the city.  On the streets, in front of the museums, in the subway… anywhere there was room to put down a stool and set out a collection dish.  We came across some other funny sights on the streets as well.  Kate liked the Happy Pills store.  The British Africa/American pub not so much.  We ate our remaining picnic leftover bread and cheese and veggies and wine out on the apartment terrasse and enjoyed the warm evening.  It was a nice change from rainy Clermont!

The next day we set out early to see what we could see.  We had pre-purchased tickets online to see the famous Sagrada Familia Basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi and we had a specific 15-minute window for entry after lunch, so we started out over by the parks surrounding the National Art Gallery and the replica Greek theater.  We didn’t actually go INSIDE the National Art Gallery though.  Sarah has no interest in looking at paintings and I don’t seem to have much.  Poor Kate.  All this culture to see and surrounded by us Philistines.  But we had fun soaking up the sun and the views.  Barcelona is a pretty hilly town it turns out.

Lunch was high cuisine, let me tell you!  Burger King.  In our defense there are no Burger Kings in France, so when we see one we like to stop in for a Whopper and a beer.  In retrospect we should have looked harder though.  It was OK but heck, we’ll be in the states in 3 months and we can find all the BK lounges we want.

Anyway, after that it was time to visit Gaudi’s masterpiece.  What a strange thing it was.  Easily the strangest building I’ve ever laid eyes on.  I told Kate if they ever build a Basilica in Las Vegas this is probably what it would look like!  We took some outside pictures while waiting for our appointed entry time.  Unfortunately since construction began in 1882 the city has grown out and surrounded the grounds of the church so we couldn’t get back far enough to get a good picture of the whole structure.  Plus there were tour buses going by every few seconds so I had to snap quickly.  It was pretty crowded, but that was no surprise given the subject.

I should mention that this is definitely a long-term project.  Started in 1882, the Sagrada Familia is expected to be completed by 2026.  While no longer than many of the other venerable cathedrals in Europe (the Clermont Cathedral was under construction for 500 years), it seems lengthy by today’s construction standards.  In 2010, although still incomplete, it was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI and became a minor basilica.  We entered the grounds and Kate waited in line to pick up our audio guides.  We had purchased the special tickets that included a guide and a visit to one of the towers.  The tour started with an explanation of the facades and the carvings on each side of the building.  You can read more about the design here.

Entering the building was breathtaking.  As weird as it looked outside, the inside was stunning with the tall open structure and the huge color-coordinated stained glass windows.  I think we spent at least an hour walking around with our mouths hanging open or just sitting in the pews trying to take it all in.  Kate and Sarah took the tower tour.  I did not.  Elevator ride up and walk down.  From their description of the open drops and wire safety nets I think I made the right choice.  If you ever visit Barcelona don’t skip a visit here.  It is truly a unique place.

The next day we climbed up to Montjuic Castle on the hilltop overlooking the harbor.  What a great spot for a fort!  We could see for miles in all directions.  On the way down we stopped and had a delicious lunch of paella outdoors overlooking the harbor.  Yum!  I think we ate paella at least 4 times while we were in Spain.  After our feast we took the metro up to a park on a (steep) hillside overlooking the city which featured a number of other structures designed by Gaudi.  Unfortunately we didn’t realize that this also required a ticket with a specific entry time and we didn’t really have time to wait for the next slot, so we had a beer and looked around the rest of the park and headed back to the city center for some Tapas before picking up the car and boarding the overnight ferry to the island of Mallorca.

Mallorca history has been documented as far back as 4000-6000 BC and I know why.  This place was really nice.  Clear Mediterranean waters, fine sand beaches, rugged hills and scrub oaks.  It was like California without all the pavement and cars.  We got off the ferry just in time for breakfast and found a nice sandwich counter by the port.  The woman who ran it was actually Parisian but she spoke good English and tolerated our bad French.  We had crepes and fresh Bruchetta with ham and cheese and olives.  Plus espresso of course.  I’m becoming completely converted to small thimble-size cups of really good, really strong coffee.

After breakfast we started driving up the coastal highway on the north shore of the island.  We didn’t go very far though.  The wind was absolutely howling and the road wound along sheer coastal cliffs, at times not much more than a single lane, and the going was slow.  That and we didn’t really have any destination in mind, so after 10 miles or so we turned around and found a beach to veg out on until we could check into our hotel.  We reveled in the solitude and the fine sand and clear water until lunch time, then found a small sandwich shop and had a bite before heading into Camp de Mar to find our lodgings.  The next two days passed all to quickly.  We didn’t really do much of anything except relax on the beach and enjoy the tranquility after the hustle and bustle of Barcelona.  Sarah dug endless pits in the sand and we sampled the paella again at the beachfront resto and bar.

The ferry back was a daytime passage this time and we couldn’t get a cabin so it was a rather long day of reading books sitting in the passenger lounge.  Disembarking in Barcelona again, we fought our way out of the city in Friday evening rush-hour traffic and stayed just up the coast in the marina hotel at Port de Mataro.

Port de Mataro, Spain
Port de Mataro, Spain

Sadly, we realized while sitting dockside enjoying Spanish omelets the next morning that this was probably going to be our last glimpse of the Mediterranean.  At least for this assignment.  The drive back was smooth and the weather was nice.  But I did get some funny looks and comments at the gas station for all the sand that had settled on the car.  Apparently it blows over from the deserts of northern Africa and settles on Mallorca from time to time.  Looks kinda odd in Clermont though.

Car decor ala African desert sands.
Car decor ala African desert sands.

Vaya con Dios, mis amigos!

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