Spain Extravaganza – Last Stop, Sitges

I am sadly back at home in cold and snowy Calgary. That is right, you read correctly, it is September 9th and already there is snow and lots of it. How I wish I was still in Spain! Looking through my pictures is a mixture of happy and sad, happy I was there and warm, sad I am no longer there and instead stuck in a snowy cold mess. So now I am going to spend a few moments reliving our last stop, Sitges. It is about 30 minutes South of Barcelona along the coast. To get to Sitges from Barcelona, take the R2 train from Passeig de Gracia. We found out that it was a bit trickier from Valencia. If you go on the RENFE (Spanish train) website it will not give you a route from Valencia to Sitges. To get there you must go to Vilanova i la Geltru and then purchase a separate ticket to transfer to the R2 towards Barcelona, it is then only one stop to Sitges. The route between Valencia and Barcelona can be busy so book early if you can. Once in Sitges it is easy and cheap to get to Barcelona and there is even a direct bus to the airport which we used at the end of the trip.

Sitges is known for a few things, one is its gorgeous setting and beautiful beaches. Sitges is also known for is its nightlife (especially the clubs and bars along the so-called “street of sin”) and as a popular gay resort area. The town is right on the sea and is a great mix of old Spain and resort heaven. There are historic sights to see, such as the cathedral Esglesia de Sant Bartomeu I Santa Tecla and the gothic residence Cau Ferrat, there is a wonderful walk along the Passeig Maritim which goes from the old town of Sitges to the port along the water and of course there are the beaches. It is a compact area and walkable to most sights and many of the beaches. The town itself is fun to wander as there are many shops and interesting historic sights scattered throughout the town. The main streets through town are lined with restaurants, cafes, shops of all kinds (tourist and non-tourist), fresh fruit and vegetable stores and gelato places. There are as many gelato shops in Sitges as there are in most Italian towns. Most nights we ate along the lovely promenade where you can hear the waves and people watch from the patios set up outside each restaurant and then sometimes head into the main part of Sitges to enjoy the nightlife.

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Aside from the main beach in Sitges beside the seaside promenade, there are actually 17 beaches, all with soft golden sand. The water is warm and you can walk out quite a long ways before it gets deep. Here the waves are much higher than the other places we went in Spain, the beach near our hotel even had surf lessons, although the waves are still very manageable and easy to swim in.  Most have chairs and umbrellas to rent or you can just stretch out in the sand. One word of warning, some of these beaches are nudist beaches. There are still people in swimsuits on the nudist beaches but there are also a lot of naked people. If you aren’t comfortable with that then make sure to check at the hotel to find out which beaches aren’t nudist so you don’t get an unexpected surprise. Another warning for those that don’t know, regardless of what beach you go on, all beaches in Spain have women going topless, not something you see very often in North America but quite common in Europe in general.

We stayed at the Melia Sitges in the port area. The hotel was big and very nice, large comfortable rooms, many with balconies. It was nice and quiet for sleeping or relaxing as the port area is away from the busy central area of Sitges yet is only a short 15 minute walk along Passeig Maritim (which is well lit at night) to get to all of the action. The port area has restaurants and shops too and was just 5 minutes from the hotel. We had a beautiful view of the port from our large balcony. The pool area in the hotel was great, lots of chairs on a big space on the lawn and a large pool plus it was right beside the restaurant and bar. The beach closest to our hotel was smaller and in a lovely cove lined on one side by green hills. It had lots of chairs to rent and a snack place for drinks and food.

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From Sitges we did a day trip to Vilanova I La Geltru and Tarragona. Vilanova is another town along the coast about 10 minutes on the R2 train South of Sitges and therefore has gorgeous beaches as well. We only had about 2 hours there before our train to Tarragona so we wandered the town instead of going to the beach. La Rambla is lined with trees and older buildings, it is a great place to stop for a coffee and watch the world go by. From the train the visitor information centre is a long walk away, it is along the waterfront just past the end of La Rambla, but it is worth the walk.  They have a good map plus a great free pamphlet with 4 walking tours of Vilanova to do on your own. Each one is unique, one for the maritime area, one for La Rambla, one for Geltru (which was formerly a separate town) and one wandering through the rest of the historical area of Vilanova, and they can all be done in sequence or separately depending on your interest. We went all the way along the La Rambla walk and then into Geltru to see Castell de la Geltru.

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We then continued on the train to Tarragona, a UNESCO world heritage site. Definitely worth the trip. It is known for its Roman ruins and of course more beautiful beaches. The Roman Amphitheatre built in the 2nd century A.D. can be seen from almost anywhere along the coast. Walking from the train station you walk uphill on the road and as the road turns the corner you have an amazing view of the amphitheatre and the sea.  It is 3 euros to go into the amphitheatre and you can sit in the seats and walk onto the main arena floor. As you walk through the centre of the city there are ruins all over the place. We also walked over to the old fortress which can be seen further along the coast from the amphitheatre on the other side of the beach on the cliff. To walk to the fort from the amphitheatre is about a 20-25 minute walk. La Rambla leads from a viewpoint on top of the hill on the other side of the amphitheatre (closer to the train station) to a large fountain near more ruins, it is about a 15 minute walk from one end to the other. There is also a long seaside promenade which goes from the beach below the fort back past the amphitheatre and to the other side of the train station.

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We spent the rest of our time enjoying Sitges, wandering through the town, lounging on the beach, walking the seaside promenade and drinking wine on our balcony. It was a nice relaxing end to the trip.

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Unfortunately it had to end eventually. I’m normally one of those people who never want to come home, I would love to travel forever. After watching the snow for the past 2 days I wish more than usual that I hadn’t come home and that I was still in hot, sunny, gorgeous Spain. How I miss it!

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Spain Extravaganza – On To Valencia and Area

As sad as it was to leave Majorca, at least it isn’t time to go home yet. Our next stop was Valencia, a gorgeous Spanish city on the East coast approximately three and a half hours South of Barcelona. Big wide boulevards, a well maintained old town with an 18th century Spanish feel and many sights in close proximity to each other make it the perfect city to tour on foot. Definitely a different feel than the other Spanish cities I have been to, it reminds me a lot of the larger South American cities which have a similar architecture and layout. When wandering the old town you continually come upon large plazas, such as the Plaza de la Virgen which borders the Valencia Cathedral pictured below, and these plazas usually contain the important buildings of Valencia. Staying anywhere in the old town provides easy access to restaurants, the train station and the main sights, plus the buses to the beaches. We stayed at the Vincci Lys close to the arena and train station Valencia Nord. The hotel was central and great value for the price. We even had a small wrought iron balcony to stand outside and enjoy the sun and watch activity on the street below.  The main street running through the old town connects the Cathedral to the bull fighting arena (pictured below) which still has bull fights to this day. All along the streets of the old town are cafés and restaurants with outdoor patios on the street great for people watching. If you eat outside on the patio there is often a surcharge, but it is worth it as you get to enjoy the warm weather and people watch.

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Valencia also has amazing beaches. We went to playa del Cabanyal and playa de la Malvarrosa where the boardwalk goes on for ages and the sand is soft and golden. Multiple buses go to the beaches from the old town throughout the day so they are easy to access. We rented chairs and umbrellas, there were many available along the length of the beach, but if it is ever full just wait until siesta time (starting around 2:00-2:30) and the beach clears out. One minute all I could see was people sunbathing, swimming or playing on the beach, the next time I looked up almost everyone was gone. The sand is nice and soft so it is a good (and free) option too.

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As I have been to Valencia before (back in July 2007) we decided to take day trips to nearby towns to explore new areas. Our first trip was to Denia, about an hour and 45 minutes by bus from Valencia. The town was much bigger than I thought it was. We arrived about 10am and most things were still closed. We managed to find a cafe on the main street running the length of the old town for a coffee and a tostada and tomatoes and then we walked up to the castle area. It is only 2 euros to enter the castle which is worth it. There is a tourist train that will take you up or you can walk. We walked and became sweaty messes as it was over 30 degrees. Great views of the town and harbour was our reward making the long hot walk worth it in the end. Too cool off we headed for the beach and spent the rest of the day on lounge chairs at yet another beautiful Spanish beach with soft golden sand and warm aquamarine Mediterranean water.

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Next was Xativa which I did on my own. It is approximately a 45 minute train ride from Valencia Nord station. Compared to the other towns it is set up very well for tourists. Not that it is necessary to cater to tourists, there is something to be said for a more authentic experience in a non-touristy town, but Xativa is able to maintain its authentic feel while still being tourist friendly. There are signs to the tourist office as soon as you leave the train station, unobtrusive, well-placed signs throughout the old town telling visitors about the historical sights, going from sign to sign is a walking tour as most signs point to the next sight to see, and all historical buildings are well marked. The town is most famous as the birthplace of Pope Alexander VI, one of the Borgia popes (his birthplace is the house pictured below). Another of the Borgia popes also lived there and there is information about both of them in Spanish at the museum inside the cathedral (the museum costs 1 euro). The castle area is best reached by the tourist train (which you can catch near the tourist office and tickets are purchased on the train) or car as it is up a steep hill. From the castle there are spectacular views of Xativa and the surrounding countryside plus the castle itself is in good shape. It is large so if you want to spend time there do not take the tourist train back as it only gives you an hour at the castle, which I found a bit rushed but not terrible. One option is to take the train up and walk down, as the train only costs 4 euros it’s not too expensive for only a one way trip.

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Our final day trip was to Sagunto (the train station is Sagunt), about a 25 minute train ride from Valencia Nord, where everything is free. Well, not food and drink of course, but all of the tourist attractions and we didn’t even get charged for the beach chairs. It also has the most helpful tourist office we encountered, we received more information on more sights than we could possibly have seen in our one day there. One warning though, there are not many restaurants so either bring a picnic, eat in or near the main square where there are a couple of cafés, or ask at the tourist office where to go and what times they are open. Sagunto is known for its Roman ruins and huge castle. The Roman amphitheatre has been renovated and is still used for concerts, as can be seen below. We passed the amphitheatre and old Jewish area on our walk up to the castle. The castle can be seen from most areas of the old town. You will be asked to get a ticket but it is free. It is a massive complex, just when you think you’ve reached the end there is still more to see. Bring good walking shoes and plan to spend some time up there. It is a true ruin for the most part so be careful where you step. We spent a couple hours walking around. The castle area contains the old Roman forum and stores plus newer sections added over the years. There is one small museum of Roman gravestones but otherwise everything is outside, we just walked through the castle ruins into many hidden corners and along the walls on the Roman side. We then took the bus to the beach which of course had more soft sand and refreshing blue water.

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On our final night we went to a Flamenco show. It was a bit outside downtown, we purchased tickets at the Valencia tourist office, and it included dinner (we chose the paella option) and the show. The dancers were amazing and the food decent for the price (32 euros which included a three course meal, sangria and the show). A lovely end to a great stay in Valencia. Time to leave again but at least there is one leg left. On to Sitges for some relaxing time in the sun.

 

Spain Extravaganza – Next Stop, Majorca

Finally made it to the Balearic Islands in Spain. We landed at the Majorca (also spelt Mallorca) airport and took the bus in to Palma de Mallorca. Our hotel, the TRYP Bellver, was in the port area. The port area is a long strip of hotels, restaurants, cafés and clubs along the marina with the big yachts, which is a 20 minute walk to the old town (at least it is from our hotel, depends where you are on the strip) and a 10 minute bus ride to the beach. Majorca is beautiful! The blue waters of the Mediterranean, green vineyards and mountains make it a gorgeous place plus the clear blue skies and 30 degree temperature certainly helps.

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First day was a beach day at Playa Major. It is a 10 minute bus ride from the port. The beach is in an inlet surrounded by cliffs and hotels. There are many chairs available to rent with umbrellas or you can choose to lay in the sand. We chose beach chairs, it was 12 euros for 2 chairs and an umbrella for the day. The water is amazing, clear, calm and warm. Not the best place if you want to surf or boogie board, but a perfect place for a relaxing day at the beach.

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The next day we took the hop on/hop off tourist bus around Palma. Sadly the earphones with the commentary only worked about 30% of the time but the tour itself was good. We only got off at 2 stops, the old town and Bellver Castle. The old town starts at the palace and cathedral which look over the port and continues for many blocks From miles away you can see the cathedral as it is raised up on a hill. There is a walk along the wall near the cathedral by the maritime park that can be accessed by going up to the cathedral or from a few of the streets through the old town or maritime park. The cathedral itself is impressive with some interesting statues, carvings and of course religious artwork. Wandering through the winding streets of the old town can feel like a maze but is a great way to spend a few hours or for an evening out. Plus there are many cafés or ice cream/gelato shops to stop at for a drink or snack along the way where you can people watch and relax. A wide boulevard parallels the old town and is a nice walk, again with shops, cafés and restaurants plus fountains and trees. The area is beautiful with all of the old Spanish architecture.

Bellver Castle is on the edge of town up a hill. There are great views over Palma and the surrounding countryside from up on the ramparts. The castle was used by the Majorcan royalty until the late 1300s when they lost independence. The palace then became a jail off and on over the years before becoming a tourist attraction. Inside the castle there is an exhibition of the famous political prisoners held in the castle when it was used as a jail. The views are the best reason to stop at the castle, you can see for miles in every direction showing the various landscapes in the Palma area.

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The next two days we did tours of the island. On the first day trip we went to Formentor, Alcudia and Pollenca. In the old town of Alcudia near the old wall there is a huge market selling everything from leather goods to souvenirs to food. It surrounds the town and continues down the Main Street. The town itself is a medieval Spanish town but it is hard to really explore much as the market seems to take over every area making it very crowded. Definitely go down some smaller side streets to escape the crowds and see more of the town. Formentor is a beach area with a narrow stretch of beach along a clear stretch of sea. The water felt lovely after the hot crowds of Alcudia. We spent the afternoon eating the lunch we bought at the market and enjoying the sun and sea. Next was a boat trip to Pollenca, which is a popular place for British tourists, and then back on the bus to head back to Palma for another evening on a patio with tapas and sangria.

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Our next day trip was an island tour to Calobra and Soller.  First stop was at a leather factory near Inca which had nice shoes and bags but was just a tourist shopping stop. Next we went to Santuari de Lluc, a religious pilgrim area with a beautiful church and grounds plus sectioned off rooms for pilgrims and travellers to stay in. The black Madonna statue was said to be found in the area and is now a relic in the church, people line up to see it and pray. We then took a winding narrow road through the Tramuntana mountains toward Calobra cove where we stopped for lunch and a swim in the cove at the mouth of Torrented de Parells. As Majorca does not have rivers, a torrent is where all of the rain water collects and then rushes down to the sea. The area is lovely with a few restaurants and two coves to swim in, one in the port, the other at the mouth of the torrent which is a 10 minute walk from the port along the sea and through two caves. One warning, there are no facilities at the cove by the torrent so change or use bathrooms in the port before heading over. We ended up changing on the beach behind towels, very awkward! Also, the beach is rocky so bring swim shoes if you can, something I sadly forgot and my feet paid the price. We then took a nice boat ride, about 45 minutes, to the port of Soller, along the cliffs, where we took an old tram to Soller to catch the old wooden electrical train back to Palma through the Tramuntana mountain range. The train was built in the early 20th century. It is a lovely trip with beautiful scenery, plus taking the old train is a great experience in itself.

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Sad to leave this beautiful place but it is one I hope to make it back to. Still so much to see, and I definitely could use some more beach and sea time!

 

Spain Extravaganza – First Stop, Barcelona

Another Europe trip this year, very exciting! Back to the Mediterranean again but in the Western Mediterranean this time to the East coast of Spain. I met up with a friend in Toronto and we flew to Barcelona, our first stop. I was here once before in November 2007, it is such a beautiful city I was happy to return. Although it was nice when I came in November, I love the hot weather so I like the temperature in August much better, even if it has been a bit cloudy.

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Gaudi’s house in Park Guell.

We decided to stay at a hotel near La Sagrada Familia beside Hospital de la Sta. Creu i Sant Pau, an old hospital that looks more like a moorish palace than a hospital with its domes and mosaics. The area is convenient to get anywhere in the city as there are multiple metro and bus stops nearby. We walked to La Sagrada Familia which is the basilica designed by Gaudi that has been under construction for over 100 years and is still not finished. I recently read an article stating it would finally be completed in about 12 years. It is an awesome structure with soaring towers and a unique design. Everywhere you look there is another interesting, and often unexpected, aspect to the exterior, including bunches of grapes at the top of one of the spires created using a mosaic design or the tree which appears to be a Christmas tree over the main entrance. To see all of the intricacies of the design it would take a lot more than just one visit.

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Sadly the tickets were sold out for the day so we only saw the outside. We decided to head for the old centre and walked toward the Arc de Triomf. It is a beautiful walk from La Sagrada Familia along a wide boulevard with shops and cafés. We walked under the Arc and strolled along a wide path lined with trees between two green spaces. There were street performers and locals wandering around or sitting on the grass.

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We continued on towards the sea and walked along the water to La Rambla. We spent the rest of the day and evening wandering around La Rambla and Barri Gotic. There were street vendors and performers, shops, restaurants and cafés. It was a long walk from our hotel so we decided to stop for a sangria and watch the world go by.

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At the end of La Rambla we stopped for tapas, one of my favourite things to eat in Spain. I love picking a bunch of small dishes to try and it is a great way to sample the cuisine. We’re moved on to another tapas place back down La Rambla before heading back to the hotel on the metro. It was amazing how busy the area was even though it was a weekday.

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The next day we went to Park Guell which is a huge park with great views of the city and where you can escape the busy streets and relax. It was designed by Gaudi. The park is free except for Gaudi’s house (5 euros)  and the architectural area (8 euros) which contains the most famous and colourful of Gaudi’s designs in the park.

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View of Park Guell architecture area and Gaudi’s house.

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Spiral columns along a path in the architectural area.

We spent so much time in the park that all we had time for was lunch at a restaurant near La Sagrada Familia before heading to the airport. Next stop Majorca!