Friday 24 March 2017

Spain: On the coast in Catalonia

Stunning: Sitges is home to many envy-inducing fabulous and ornate mansions and hotels
Stunning: Sitges is home to many envy-inducing fabulous and ornate mansions and hotels
Stunning: Sitges is home to many envy-inducing fabulous and ornate mansions and hotels
Catalan bread
Eiffel Bridge
Anna Coogan

Anna Coogan

I'm not sure I'm capable of driving a two-wheeled self-balancing vehicle for 6km through a vineyard owned by the Giro Ribot family in the beautiful Penedes region on the Costa Barcelona.

I shake and quake my way around smooth ground outside a wine cellar while 'driving' a Segway. Yet a charming Spanish man looks me in my startled eyes and tells me that it's time for the fun to begin and for us to traverse the rough terrain of a vineyard.

I hate to disappoint. Though I'm not sure my cardiovascular system knows what's hit it as I bump up and down. And when we get to the steep bit at the side of the hill, and I lean so far to the right that my knee locks and my foot goes dead with the tension, the only thing keeping me going is the whoops of joy from my comrades up front.

Very far away up front, as I'm lagging way behind. When I do find the courage to look up, the views are breathtaking.

Stunning: Sitges is home to many envy-inducing fabulous and ornate mansions and hotels
Stunning: Sitges is home to many envy-inducing fabulous and ornate mansions and hotels

All anyone can talk about at dinner that evening is Segways, while we sit over a gastronomic feast in the rustic roadside hotel Sol i Vi Hotel. This is a place so understated that a large swimming pool is hidden out of view.

Dinner includes sea bass baked in salt crust which is wheeled out to our table, and after jamon serrano has been thinly sliced from a hind leg in front of us. There are at least five different wines to be tasted in what's a big-hearted and delicious display of hospitality.

I'm not doing that much talking. I've seen the video of our Segway trip, and there's an embarrassing long gap between the main group up front, and then, after some footage of vines, and then footage of even more vines, a terrified little creature comes into the frame and she appears to be hanging on for dear life.

Thank goodness the view from my bedroom window the following morning is a lot better, and one of rays of sunshine breaking through a mist and illuminating rows of vines framed by mountains in the distance. A scene straight out of a holiday brochure.

We're on a five-day visit to the Costa Brava and Costa Barcelona in north-eastern Spain, and the Catalan region. We fly into Barcelona arriving at teatime on a Sunday, and after a short drive we arrive at our first destination, the seaside resort, Lloret de Mar, where we stay at the Hotel Delamar right on the seafront.

Soon it's time for dinner, and tapas makes the first of many appearances on this trip. Tapas at Atics restaurant, which has a rooftop terrace with a view right down on to the beach, include delicious squid in beer tempura batter with lemon mayonnaise, Iberian ham with crunchy Catalan flatbread, and broken fried eggs with potatoes.

We've been told to expect decent weather in spite of it being late September, and are told to bring something warm for the evenings. The following morning it is sunny when we set off to visit the Santa Clotilde Gardens in Lloret de Mar.

These stunning gardens are set on the top of a cliff and are designed in the manner of the Italian Renaissance and sweep down to the sea.

There is a smell of pine and of the sea as we walk around. There are beautiful views and beautiful sculptures, and the gardens are so popular that picnics are banned as people would want to stay all day.

Afterwards, we take a short trip in our minibus and arrive in the seaside resort of Tossa de Mar, still on the Costa Brava, and which in 1989 declared itself an anti-bullfighting city.

There is something for everyone here: beaches, shops, restaurants and historical ruins. There are also a fair number of tourists in spite of it not being high season. We follow the crowds dressed in summer clothes and get the history bit out of the way before lunch, and visit the charming old quarter.

If we don't quite storm the castle, we do at least make a good go of walking its walls. Another phenomenon which makes the first of many appearances on this trip is the Americanos (or Indianos), which is the name given to the Spanish who after emigrating to the colonies in the 19th century looking for work - returned home with their pockets lined with wads of cash.

They built big, showy mansions to let everyone know how well they had done in their endeavours abroad. They also planted palm trees in their gardens to show how cosmopolitan they were, and as a sign of welcome.

These houses have now mainly been turned into hotels, such as the modernist boutique Hotel Diana with its elegant architecture and interior. These hotels often have preservation orders stamped on them which mean the owners can't add lifts or swimming pools.

This in turn can bring the price down for what are extremely graceful surroundings.

We lunch in Restaurant Can Pini, which feels cosy and un-touristy, and where the food includes a very fresh pear and walnut salad, and delicious monkfish cooked in garlic and tomatoes.

Our post-lunch walk is the Cami de Ronda, a footpath along the Costa Brava coast on which work first began in the 19th century, with the intention of helping the Guardia Civil control the coast and stop smuggling. It's got incredible views of the blue sky and sea meeting on the horizon which we enjoy during a two-hour walk in the afternoon, from S'Agaro to Platja d'Aro.

It ends at a small beach, so be sure to bring togs and suncream and make the most of a very pleasant adventure.

We stay the night at the Cosmopolita Hotel Boutique in Platja d'Aro, once again right on the seafront. During a walk by the sea after dinner there is a smell of beef on the grill coming from restaurants, and the sound of music, both of which are closely associated by many with a good night out after a day on the beach.

The following morning the city of Girona on the River Onyar is our destination. It's well-known for its medieval architecture and for its walled Old Quarter. It's also well-known as a film location for the sixth season of Game of Thrones. It's easy to see why it was chosen for filming, as it oozes atmosphere.

And you should see the looks of excitement on the faces of the fans of the series who are on our trip. They discuss the popular fantasy drama in intricate detail as we make our way down the city's winding alleyways, and under the towering arches. Lunch is enjoyed at Boira restaurant which has tables outside on Plaza Independencia, making it ideal for people-watching. We have tapas, including fried calamari and sauteed prawns, followed by ice cream.

After lunch it is time for the Costa Barcelona part of our trip. Our first stop off is the Church of Colonia Guell, an unfinished work by the architect Antoni Gaudi who is best known for the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

What's interesting about the church is that this is where Gaudi tried out many of his design techniques before perfecting them and putting them to use in Barcelona's famous cathedral. While a lot less impressive in size, it's architectural candy for the eye, with its beautiful stained-glass windows. Our guide is an absolute treasure too.

We stay the night at the Hotel Antemare in Sitges. Sitges is an extremely popular holiday destination with the gay community. We eat dinner by the hotel's swimming pool and the majority of our fellow guests are same-sex couples. This coastal town is also a go-to destination for artists, dating from the 19th century when the Catalan painter Santiago Rusinol had a summer residence there.

The following morning we take the Americanos Architectural Trail in Sitges. Again there are lots of envy-inducing fabulous and ornate mansions/now hotels, which were built by the Spanish who made their fortunes abroad. They had it, and they flaunted it. We visit the Romantic Museum Can Llopis, which is housed in a neoclassical house built in 1793.

It has a plain exterior which gives way to an elaborate and colourfully decorated interior, and has a ballroom and music room. It gives us a joyous taste of what it was like to be a well-to-do 19th century Sitges family enjoying the high life.

We visit Casa Bacardi, a museum dedicated to the history and development of the Bacardi drinks company which was founded in 1862. We learn how to make mojitos - it's a lot harder than you think getting mint leaves to stick to the side of a glass. We eat lunch in Picnic Restaurant on the promenade in Sitges, which overlooks the sea and sand with its sun umbrellas and bronzed bodies, and enjoy large and luscious plates of tapas.

The last few days have flown and have been fantastic, and now it's time to head off to visit the Giro Ribot vineyards, and for that never-to-be forgotten Segway ride up the side of a mountain. I should say we also visited the wine cellar and enjoyed some excellent wine.

We overnight in the Sol i Vi Hotel and then, alas, head the following morning for Barcelona Airport and our flight home.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Catalan Bread

sn Catalan Bread.jpg  

Catalan tomato bread is delicious. Toast some rustic bread, and take your tomato and cut it through the centre — not down the middle — so its juices run easily. Rub a garlic clove along the toast, add salt, then the tomato juice, and sit back and eat.

Eiffel Bridge

SN Eiffel Bridge.jpg  

The buildings which back on to the Onyar River in Girona are painted in a riot of cheering colours. The river is crossed by the Eiffel Bridge which was constructed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel — the French civil engineer probably better known for constructing the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

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