Monday, August 6, 2012

Sun seeking in Spain and the Costa Brava

La Sagrada Familia Cathedral Barcelona
The final leg of our summer travels had our family journeying off to Spain to enjoy the sunshine in Barcelona and the Costa Brava.  We visited my wife's law school friend who is a native Catalan and currently lives in Barcelona and has a summer house on the Costa Brava.   The Catalans are very proud of their heritage and wish to become a sovereign nation as they once were 300 years ago. The heat and humidity hit us like a great wall of steam as we left the airport and headed by taxi to the apartment we were renting in the Gracia neighborhood.  This wonderful neighborhood was not located in the city center, but was very charming and full of lively squares and unique shops.  In my opinion, there is no better way to get the feeling of a city then staying near the locals in a residential neighborhood versus the standard downtown tourist centric area.

Casa Batllo by Gaudi in Barcelona

Barcelona is quite large in my opinion and there are many interesting sights to see.  However, in addition to all the wonderful sights and sounds of Barcelona, there is the amazing food. And if you are coming from Scandinavia like me, then you can appreciate all the assortments of tapas, paella, seafood and other culinary treats from this area.  This area of Catalonia is especially renowned for their chefs and Catalan cooking.  During our 4 day stay in the area we feasted on much of the food I mentioned and usually washed it down with a 3 euro glass of Spanish wine.  Yes, that is correct, you can get a glass of wine in a restaurant for 3 euros in Spain, which is about the same cost as a glass of juice.  In Finland you are lucky to be able to get a glass of wine on the menu for less than 10 Euros.  Several mornings jogs up the hill from our neighborhood to Parc Guell helped me burn off the meals and make room for more Catalan gastranomic treats.

Dali Museum in Figueres, Costa Brava

The top tourist areas in Barcelona are the church La Sagrada Famila, Gaudi's famous architectural buildings which include Parc Guelll and Casa Battlo, and the Ramblas and Gothic Quarters.  This is just a few of the main highlights as there is much to see in this great city.  It is hard for me to admit, but we actually paid for one of those double decker tour buses and zoomed around the city soaking in the sun and the sights.  I am not one to typically pay for a tourist bus, however with 2 kids in tow, this seemed like a reasonable option.  The subway is actually very good in Barcelona as well, so we also used it for many of our longer destinations.  We really enjoyed all that Barcelona offered, but suffered a bit in the heat and humidity.  Even though I am a native of California, having lived in Finland for the last year means that I have adjusted to cooler weather patterns.  Barcelona is an amazing city in many ways and I would highly recommend a visit, but think twice if coming in the middle of the summer.  It is hot, extremely popular, crowded and you might be fighting your way through the tourist center.

So, after 4 days in sunny Barcelona, we made the journey via rental car to the Costa Brava.  We drove to the idyllic seaside village of Llanca while stopping at Figueres en route.  Figueres was Salvador Dali's home city and prominently features the Dali museum.  It actually seems that Figueres has built tourism around the Dali museum, which dominates several blocks of the downtown.  We have always been fascinated by Dali's work and thought since we were passing through that this would be a perfect opportunity to see the museum.  We waited in line for over 30 minutes just to get in the door to this extremely popular museum.  Once inside were delighted by his extraordinary collection of paintings, drawings and other bits and pieces.  Dali was the ultimate surrealist artist in my opinion.  Then after a few hours we ventured back to the road that would eventually land us in the coastal city of Llanca.  Llanca is our Catalan host Eva's summer home and they have a very large castle like summer house that has passed many generations in her family.   This was the most amazing building that I have ever stayed in and the construction dated back approximately 1,000 years.  You could almost feel the spirits roaming around as you passed through each room in this amazing building.  The "guest home" portion of the building had a kitchen, family room and 3 bedrooms and the main section was about twice as large.  Downstairs in the courtyard featured an old and very deep water well and also an ancient dungeon.  The dungeon door was an original with old but thick wood and iron bars to keep it shut.  When Eva opened the door for us, you could actually see the scratch marks from former prisoners kept there during the 14 century.  Very cool and a bit spooky at the same time.  I felt as if I was in a time warp as Eva gave us a tour of the entire place.  Every nook and cranny of the building had something unique and interesting to offer dating back into the Middle Ages.

Hilltop castle in Costa Brava -similar construction to Eva's home

In addition to staying at her summer home, we explored the coast a bit which included a death defying drive up the coastal mountains to an old castle that Eva claims is built by the same folks who created her family's summer home.  We also spent a half day at the beach soaking in the rays and the children loved exploring the sea life which included sea urchins and octopus.  Everything about the Costa Brava and the cute villages were just amazing.  You here stories about many sun seekers from Northern Europe going down to the Costa Del Sol for vacation, but I think they have overlooked this gem of a place.  I absolutely loved Catalonia and the Costa Brava and would return in a heartbeat.  Living in Finland is nice, but an escape to the amazing Costa Brava should rank high on everyone's European wish list.

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