Life Europe

Thursday 18 September 2014

Flying Alone 
on the Costa Brava

Constance Harris enjoys a solo holiday with a difference thanks to Friendship Travel in Catalonia.

Constance Harris

Published 07/07/2014 | 02:30

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Barcelona, La Rambla shopping woman. Female shopper walking happy away with shopping bags raised up. From the famous landmark street in Catalonia, Spain.
Shopping on Barcelona's Las Ramblas.
Old Town: The Poble Espanyol in Barcelona, traditional architecture in the heart of the bustling city.
Cooking Up a Storm: Constance Harris centre, at the cookery school in Hostalric

Going on holiday on one's own can be a daunting issue, even for an experienced traveller. One day you can be perfectly fine with sitting in restaurants on your own and the next you realize you aren't really having a fabulous time after all - because you have no one to talk to and share with.

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It's even more challenging if you have never been one for doing things by yourself. Or are recently widowed/divorced/single and dread the thought of experiencing a holiday without your partner.

In Ireland, the market for solo holidaymakers is not much targeted, as it is in the UK where there is an abundance of them. In fact, lone travellers such as myself tend to dread holidays because of all the single occupancy tariffs and other 'costs' trotted out. Not to mention the staring from fellow 'attached' holidaymakers; Bridget Jones was right - apparently underneath our skins singletons do have scales that frighten people.

Concern as to the tone of a singles holiday can be off-putting to first-timers who worry about it being 'hook-up' in nature.

Founded by Colum McLornan, Northern Irish travel company Friendship Travel is uniquely about making friends on holiday, having company to further enjoy it, someone to dine with, go on excursions and possibly arrange to travel with again.

It is also one of the few singles holiday companies to offer direct flights and holiday packages from Ireland.

It was because of my great, first, Friendship experience that I realized I never quite relaxed when I travelled on my own; I was always on my guard. With Friendship I relaxed, and that is the best testimony I can give as to the quality of this holiday experience.

As they say in their brochure, it's not a 'matching up' holiday, nor is it about doing everything together, being packed into a coach bus with 40 other people with an average age of 80+. Friendship Travel attracts the 35-65 bracket, interested and engaged with life, with the majority being mid 40s to 50s. I have met people from either side of that age bracket on Friendship holidays, too, and all the ages mixed brilliantly with no feelings of being too old, too young, boring, slow, not thin enough, etc. The mix of age, background and experience made the holiday richer.

I have been to Turkey twice with Friendship. The first time it was their House Party concept, where you stay in the small, family run Hotel Era, and everyone staying is from Friendship so you can relax utterly in your single-dom.

The second holiday, I stayed in a gorgeous 4 star spa hotel, had a great time, enjoyed great food - and lost 3lbs because I teamed up with a Friendship comrade and we motivated each other to work out in the gym each day.

From Friendship's brochure I noticed they do city breaks, longer breaks to the Caribbean, sailing in Turkey, walking weekends in Yorkshire. Feeling in need of some sun (it was before our heat wave) but also not being one for lounging around a pool all day, I chose their combined beach/city holiday on the Costa Brava in which authentic Catalan experiences were the focus.

We were based an hour outside of Barcelona, in the 3 star plus, Hotel Stella & Spa, 100 metres from the beach in the pleasant, not too developed, beach resort of Pineda de Mar, which was very residential when you walked just a few metres back from the beach. It has cafes, restaurants and yummy ice cream shops and a great street market on Fridays that serves the whole community.

An important aspect of the Friendship experience is the holiday representatives who are with you every day. This time, we had Lourdes Riera, who reveled in showing us her Catalonia, rich and evocative and not in the least touristy.

There were eighteen of us on this holiday. Monday was the day of arrival, then from Tuesday to Friday, Lourdes had our days planned.

Tuesday, we took the excellent coastal train service to nearby Canet de Mar, where we were taken on a walking tour of the architecture in the region, and visited the summer house of Lluis Domenech i Montaner, who crafted much of Barcelona's distinctive 18th century architecture, which is now an exhibition centre.

Here I discovered the work of a wonderful photographer, Eugeni Forcano, whose vital, photo montage of Spanish life in the last century is up there with the Magnum photographers. At the end of the visit we were treated to local liqueurs and biscuits. Exhausted from our endeavours we noshed in a local café.

The next day we took the coastal train to Barcelona. We enjoyed a three-hour tour of the medieval, Gothic part of the city, heard tales of the Spanish Inquisition, Pogroms (Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492), the Second World War and more. The afternoon was free so I did further ice cream noshing and a gentle amble along the Ramblas.

My favourite experience of the holiday was the day we visited the medieval town of Hostalric and then attended a cookery workshop with local chef, Carles Castillo i Esteba, of the Hotel Esteba in Caldes de Malavella. Hostalric is home to one of the oldest cookery books in existence, thought to be from the 1400s.

The gang and I donned aprons in the stunning built-for-purpose facility and were taught to chop, stir, blend, cook, pour and serve Catalan dishes such as chick-pea and fish soup, fish fritters, salad, beans and sausages casserole, frozen mascarpone in crushed strawberries sauce.

I have to give credit where it is due - the men in our group were way more dedicated than the women. Once the meal was complete we enjoyed the fruits of our labour washed down with sangria, arriving home sated, tired and happy. Heaven.

Friday we walked along the beach to the nearby shopping town of Calella. Lourdes took us to El Tall, which sells some of the most select, expensive Iberico hams to be found in the region; a gastronomic specialty where the pig has been raised on acorns. A leg can cost over a thousand euros. The weekend was our own, but as the group fancied a meal in a typical Catalan restaurant, Lourdes arranged for us to go to a lovely, mountain top place not on the itinerary. On Sunday we enjoyed dinner on the beach, watching people fish as the sun set.

Since I have returned, the emails from members of the group are pinging back and forwards. Some with pictures to share, others thanking everyone for a great experience with some explaining it was their first holiday on their own, that they had been very nervous but delighted now that their fears were unfounded. Several are planning the reunion already - Barcelona for Christmas.

With Friendship Travel, of course, because they take care of Christmas for singles, too.

Getting There

A seven-night holiday, including excursions and a cookery workshop - is available 15th September from Friendship Travel, from €1,095 per person inclusive of return flights from Dublin, transfers, half-board accommodation, including wine at dinner, at the three star Hotel Stella & Spa (with sole occupancy of a twin/double room) and services of a bi-lingual host. 

Other singles holidays on offer from Friendship Travel departing from Dublin, include house party holidays in Turkey, staying at the small and friendly Hotel Era. Prices from €975, inclusive of return flights, transfers and all-inclusive accommodation at the end of August.

For further information tel: 048 9446 2211 or see www.friendshiptravel.com

Sunday Independent

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