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Two Weeks in France and Spain, Summer 2004


10+ Posts
By Tracy H from North Carolina, Summer 2004
A family of four (kids ages 16 and 12) spent a week in a rental house in the Lot valley followed by visits to Collioure, France, Cadaques and Barcelona Spain

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Arriving in Barcelona and Driving to Gerona

After a very long day of flying (we counted 18 hours including layovers) and driving, we made it to Gerona, Spain. I must say we had the most difficult time finding our hotel, Bellmirall. We drove around and around the ancient cobbled streets and ran into numerous dead-ends and one ways. Ultimately, we gave up, parked the car in a garage and walked to the hotel to get directions to the parking lot. We were all a bit irritable and very tired, but in the end, we all agreed it was still worth it.

Gerona’s old quarter, built into the side of a mountain, is one cobbled street after narrow alley after winding stairway after wrought iron balcony. Many in Catalonia consider Gerona one of the best places in Spain in which to live due to its cleanliness, vibrant university and cultural offerings.

Gerona is much more Catalan than Barcelona, so try to learn a few words before you visit. For some reason, Gerona is off the radar for most American tourists (Rick Steves does not mention it) and most of the tourists who do visit seem to be day-trippers. The province of Gerona is a popular destination for the British due to cheap flights into Gerona’s airport, so the residents are used to English-speaking visitors. American cycling legend Lance Armstrong trains for the Tour de France in Gerona, and once owned a home here.

We visited the Banys (pronounced bansh) Arab that are actually Roman baths, which were built in the late 12th century. The small museum features three separate chambers: a frigidarium, a tepidarium and a caldarium.

We saw the Cathedral with its huge nave, reportedly the largest in the world at 75 feet. We wandered the old Jewish Quarter and strolled along the Onyar River. We walked the Passeig Arqueologic that runs below the walls of the cathedral. One does not need a watch in Gerona, as there are three churches in under one square mile that chime regularly, day and night.

We had lunch under the trees on the arcaded Ramblas de Llibertat. The kids dined on delicious bocadillos con chorizo. My husband and I tasted patatas bravas (those little fried potatoes served with a spicy mayo) and pa amb tomaquet (crusty bread slices rubbed with garlic, a dab of olive oil and smeared with a cut, ripe tomato) and the famous anchovies. They were salty, but milder than what we get in the States.

After a short nap, we made a quick trip to an Internet cafe located in the heart of the Jewish quarter and then browsed the shops along the Ramblas. Later that evening, we had a nice dinner at a somewhat touristy restaurant. I loved the broad beans, cooked with bits of ham and chorizo. For dessert, the requisite crema Catalan (burnt cream or creme brulee).

Our hotel was the Bellmirall, located in the middle of the Jewish quarter a short walk from the steps of the cathedral. It is located in an old building, with narrow stairs, low ceilings and stone walls. The hotel has a tranquil courtyard where breakfast is served and where one can enjoy a coffee or tea in the afternoon. The rooms have no TV, no phones and no A/C, but are very reasonably priced. We paid 100 euro for a room for four, including breakfast. The breakfast was a generous one, featuring baskets of breads, preserves, cereals, fresh orange juice, Spanish ham and pots of coffee, tea and steamed milk. There is free parking behind the hotel in the plaza in front of the university. The Bellmiral has a website, but not email, so you must phone to reserve. Credit cards are not accepted.

Gerona was a perfect stop for the first night. We were able to get out of a big city and have a quiet place to regroup before our drive to the Lot Valley.
Tips on Gerona

It is difficult getting good information on Gerona on the web. I referred to Fodor's Barcelona to Bilbao written by George Semler. Mr. Semler has lived in Catalonia for 25 years and has written numerous articles on the region and maintains his own website (link to the right).

Directly across from the Bellmiral is another very charming looking hotel called Apartments Historic. These apartments rent by the day and have received good reviews. Be warned that some rooms have no A/C. The owner speaks no English.

I seriously considered renting an apartment at a place I happened upon on the web called Hap Dreams. These apartments look very nice and are located in the historic district. At the time, however, I was unsure about the location. I think this would be well worth checking out now, as the location is not too far from the Bellmiral. They have online booking.

Gerona is well situated for day trips to the beach on the Costa Brava. Additionally, Figueres, home to the Dali Museum, just up the autopista. The very famous restaurant, El Bulli, is in Roses about an hour and 1/2 away.
From Gerona, Spain to St. Cirq Lapopie, France

Ideally, one would not fly into Barcelona in order to get to St Cirq Lapopie, France, as it makes for a rather long day of driving. The original plan was to fly into Barcelona and to take a couple of days to drive the nearly 5 hours to Tour de Faure. Unfortunately, time constraints interfered with those plans. It probably would have been more practical to fly into one of the London airports and try to book a cheap flight into Carcassonne on Easy Jet.

That said, being a native Texan and used to long city-to-city drives, the trip was not bad. The autopista was safe and easy and we made good time. We stopped for gas and bought a bottle of Corbiers (7 euro for the bottle) after contemplating the concept of canned cassoulet.

We drove into Cahors around 3 PM, called the caretaker of the rental house to warn him we were on our way and shopped at the huge LeClerc supermarket to stock up on supplies for the week. We bought quail and pancetta to grill, various cheeses and a bit of pate for nibbling and a bottle of Cahors in case we ran out of Corbiers.

Loading into the car once more, we made the drive up the D662 towards Figeac, following the Lot River. About 20 minutes out of Cahors, the scenery began to change dramatically. White cliffs rose up on both sides of the river. We passed several charming villages, including Vers and Bouzies. After about 40 minutes of driving, we pulled into the hamlet of Tour De Faure. We could spot the tower adjacent to our rental property.

We spent the evening at the house, enjoying our spectacular views and the comforts of the lovely house.

My husband cooked the quail and we nibbled on pate, cheese and bread. After dinner, we sat in the living room listening to Henri Salvador on the stereo and were very grateful for the opportunity to make this trip.
To Market to Market ...

Today, we awoke to the sounds of the church bells ringing...why are there not real church bells in Charlotte? Even though I am not religious, I do love that sound! After coffee and showers, we hopped in the car and made our way to Cajarc, about 20 minutes away, where we found a fabulous boulangerie, J.A. Lagrande. We bought ham and cheese croissants, pizza, quiche and a savoury crepe as well as pain au levain and had a bit of a picnic before venturing on to Figeac for the Saturday market.

We shopped the market under the halle on place Carnot, buying the most incredibly sweet strawberries and cherries. I have never tasted a better strawberry! I also bought a Quercy melon and farm-fresh eggs. My husband bought duck breasts for dinner. We found a man selling walnut specialities including walnut oil, shelled nuts, a walnut wood bowl for cracking the nuts -- our first souvenir. My husband and son also found a man selling Laguiole knives and bought a gorgeous olivewood handled corkscrew. My daughter and I bought a straw basket for our purchases and we were back on the road to Tour de Faure for swimming and a rest.

Afterwards, we hiked the 3-km St Cirq Lapopie, one of the plus beaux villages of France that sits high above the south bank of the Lot River, seemingly clinging to the cliffs. St Cirq Lapopie is a very popular tourist destination, with bus loads of people making the pilgrimage. With its charm, this is understandable. There are few places to stay in town, so it most crowded during the day.

We visited a wine merchant selling vin noix (walnut wine), bought a bottle of Cahors and another of Fenelon. Fenelon is a drink comprised of Cassis, Cahors wine and vin noix. It is very, very sweet.

That night, we dined on duck breast with peppercorn sauce, roasted potatoes and for dessert, candied walnuts and walnut cookies washed down by a bit of Fenelons.
Cave Paintings, Long Sunday Lunches and Another Cliff Hanger

The weather here has been the best we have experienced on any of our past trips to Europe. Temperatures range from the low 60's in the morning to the mid 80's during the day. The warm air makes the pool very inviting.

We first visited the caves at Pech Merle near Carbrerets. (pech means hill in French and rhymes with fresh) The caves are a very popular destination. In order to preserve the cave paintings, visits are limited to 700 people per day. Reservations are required, and in peak season, you should try to book several days in advance. This can be easily done via the Internet.

The cave was amazing. I was reminded of my freshman year art history teacher, Mary Vernon, who acted out a cave man and his wife deciding what to draw on their "living room" wall. I never thought I would ever see the real thing and it was much better than pictures out of a book. The cave features a horse painting dating back 25,000 years, footprints, stalactites and stalagmites and the most amazing creations called "cave pearls."

We were among a group of about 15. Five of us were English speakers, including a couple of American women who were taking a walking tour of the area. Though the tour was in French, the guide was kind enough to occasionally speak English. The center also provides guidebooks in multiple languages.

I should point out that if one chooses to visit this region of France, one should really practice more French! Many of the locals speak very little, if any English. I have been ruined by visiting larger cities where English is more common. I have vowed to take a French class before I return to France.

After the caves, we made a speedy trip to Cajarc to buy bread and evening snacks, for our plan was to have Sunday lunch in St. Cirq Lapopie. We dined at Le Gourmet Quercynois, a pretty little restaurant in the heart of the village. We had a delicious, long lunch. The restaurant features local specialties, meaning DUCK! I had the pleasure of eating many duck parts with my meal.

The restaurant served everyone a small cup of a delicate cream of red pepper soup that we all enjoyed. My first course was the salad Quercynoise, which is composed of frisee, duck gizzards confit, a slice of foie gras, slices of smoked duck and a small bit of duck sausage dressed with mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with walnuts. It was very good. Other dishes sampled by my family that day were coq-au-vin made with the local Cahors wine, duck confit and grilled sandre, which is a local fresh-water fish. It was all very good and very reasonable. Our set menu was 21 euro per person.

Besides one English couple, we were the only non-French that day. The restaurant was filled with French families enjoying a Sunday meal together. The children are so well behaved here; even if allowed to run about, they are not disruptive.

When we returned to the house full and sleepy, the kids layed down and napped for almost 3 hours! We spent a quiet evening sitting on the terrace trying to find a way to raise the 500,000 Euro to buy the house (it is for sale).

On Monday we made the one hour trip to Rocamadour, a town built hanging over the gorges.

The journey to Rocamadour took us through Vers on the D662, then up to the D32 through Labastide Murat. We discovered a small market going on, which we thought unusual given that it was a Monday. We planned to stop at the Shoppi Mart in the town on our return to pick up a few items for the house.

Rocamadour is amazingly beautiful though very touristy (as expected) The town has been a popular destination for centuries. First, the draw was the Black Madonna housed in the Chappelle Notre dame. Pilgrims reportedly would crawl on their knees up the stone steps to pray to the smoke blackened statue. Today, the town is abuzz with tourists - many of them American students and retirees, shopping in the many souvenir shops.

We had planned to have lunch here, but tour groups were overrunning most of the establishments, so we opted instead to have ice cream for lunch and head back to the house for an afternoon swim.

We returned to Labastide Murat and found the Shoppi closed for the mid-day break (I should have known better), so we made a turn and headed toward Cahors and the big LeClerc, which is open all day.
A Hike Along the Lot and Another Market Day

On Tuesday, we decided to tackle the 3 km. hike from St. Cirq Lapopie to Bouzies, which follows the Lot. We packed a picnic lunch, grabbed our cameras and hit the trail.

The walk from Tour de Faure to the beginning of the trail is about 1 km. We picked up the chemin de halage just beyond the Camping de la Plage camp ground. The trail follows the old towpath for barges hauling produce up and down the river. Part of the trail was cut into the cliff side just above the river. We were led through farm fields and past locks. We stopped under the cliffs to eat our picnic in the shade and continued on to Bouzies, where we planned to buy drinks before returning home. When we arrived in Bouzies, we found there was no place to buy anything!

Luckily, we found a town water fountain, and filled our water bottle, and then we head up the trail that leads to St Cirq. This follows the tiny road up from Bouzies and runs about 4 km. The reward for taking this steep hike is spectacular views over the valley, plus the chance to stop for ice cream in St Cirq. Tired, hot and thirsty, our lemon and lime ices were a welcome treat. After we recovered, we made the 3 km hike back down the hill to Tour de Faure. We spent the rest of the day relaxing poolside.

On Wednesday, we opted to drive to Cahors for the Wednesday market instead of going canoeing, as the weather was a bit threatening. We arrived at the market around 10 AM and things were humming along. There were vendors selling foie gras (naturally) and all things duck. There was the honey man, the baker, a Moroccan selling spices in bulk as well as incredible looking pastries. There was a vendor selling paella.

Multiple stalls were set up for the sale of fresh produce, including those wonderful strawberries. The fish seller had quite the selection, from fresh anchovies to beautiful flounder, tuna steaks and crayfish. We bought trout to cook on the grill for dinner. The market is outside Cahor's cathedral, and the square is lined with shops selling the local Cahors wine and even more duck products as well as canned cassoulet. After the market, we found an artisanal baker and bought two baguettes and a lovely tart tatin to complete our evening meal.

We hurried home to put our fish in the fridge and head back out for a simple lunch at O'Louise in Cabarets, the village at the bottom of Pech Merle. The waiter was a jovial fellow who spoke rather good English and was very accommodating. He told us he was flying on the clouds, which we took to mean very happy. He reminded me of Kevin Kline in his role as Luc in French Kiss!

After lunch, we made the slow, twisting D41 following the Cele River, marveling at the homes built right in the cliffs; their backsides literally are solid rock. God forbid there is a landslide! There is a man who has his museum of the peculiar, who allows free admission but who will not let you photograph his art without paying a fee. There were cyclists galore. This is the perfect place to do a bike tour.

We stopped in Marcilhac Sur Cele to visit the ruins of the abbey Saint-Pierre de Marcilhac (14th c) and sat riverside for a bit, soaking our feet in the cold water. We then crossed the causse back toward Cajarc and headed down the road to Chateau Cenevieres. We had just missed the tour and sadly were unable to see the chateau.

We opted to return to the house to enjoy the pool instead. Our grilled trout, stuffed with herbs from the garden, was fabulous as was the tart tatin.
Hieroglyphics, Stinky Cheese and Hopefully Helpful Hints

We left the house around 10 AM for Figeac, as I could not imagine leaving without seeing the museum dedicated to Jean Francois Champollion, the man who unlocked the key to the Rosetta Stone.

The museum houses a nice selection of antiquities, including sarcophagi, amulets, scarabs and papyrus paintings. Many of the objects are on loan from the Louvre and the museum in Cahors. The original Rosetta Stone is held at the British Museum, but there is a wonderful full-sized replica in a quiet courtyard steps from the museum.

After our visit to the museum, we had a simple lunch at Four Poix. My husband and kids had excellent pizzas and I got my last fix of duck-stuff. The regional salad Querceynoise. This salad, however, also included a small round of cabecou cheese. I liked everything but the cabecou. I cannot make myself like this cheese! Prior to our trip, I bought a cabecou from our Dean and Deluca. I hated it. I decided it was probably past its prime, and was determined to try a fresh cabecou in France. Cabecou is the only cheese made in this region. Made from raw goat's milk (I like goat's cheese mind you) I think it has a distinct urine quality. Perhaps a little goat urine goes into the process? My husband and daughter like the cheese, so there must be something wrong with my taste buds.

Following lunch, we visited the Cathedral of St Sauveur. This is a lovely church with a pretty little chapel featuring a 19th century stained glass rendition of the Passion of Christ.

The town of Figeac has been my favorite mid-sized town, though most people prefer Cahors. I loved the half-timbered buildings, the Cele, which meanders through town and the cobbled streets. The square that houses the lively Saturday market is turned into one giant outdoor dining room for the restaurants that surround it.

After Figeac, (Fee-zhahk), we drove the windy D-41 from Cabrerets all the way, passing incredible homes again built right into the cliffs as well as the multitude of Quercy stone homes and pigionniers. When approaching Figeac, the causse is reminiscent of the Texas hill country.

As is always the case when my trip is coming to a close, I am very sad about leaving here. My son really enjoyed the house and as did my daughter did too, but she swears the place is haunted. Perhaps the knights who kept watch over St Cirq Lapopie haunt it!

The next day, we loaded up early and headed towards Collioure on the Med. We hoped to make good time so that we could visit Carcasonne briefly on our way to the coast. My husband was ready for lighter cuisine. I must say, however, that the previous night's trout was excellent and the kids were even able to handle the fact that we cooked the fish heads on.

Notes on the area:

The Lot valley has much to offer. For the outdoorsy types, there is hiking, cycling, canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing, spelunking (or cave diving) and fishing. Foodies will love the markets in Cahors and Figeac, plus the multitude of outlets selling the regional specialties.

There is a huge wine store in Cahors called L'Atrium on the N20 that offers tastings. And of course, there are numerous vineyards where you can sample the Cahors wine. We found this wine to be very good and extremely reasonable.

History buffs will love Figeac and Cahors, plus the bastides in the region. This is the land of the 100 Years War, as well as the Cathars/Albigensians.

In Bouzies, you can rent bicycles or canoes. We wish we had rented the bikes, as cycling is a wonderful way to see the valley and the roads along the river are level and easy.

There are no internet cafes in these small towns. My Rough Guide listed two in Cahors: the first is at Les Docks (Tues-Sun from 2-6) and the second in the same building as the youth hostel on Rue Frederic-Suisse. I did not see Internet cafes in either Figeac or Cajarc.

Shops close during lunch, so be prepared. Our local bakery in Tour de Faure would run out of bread early in the day, so buy your bread early, too.

We used the Michelin Map 526 for the Midi-Pyrenees and found it very helpful. I referred to my guidebook The Rough Guide to the Dordogne & the Lot so frequently the pages are falling out. Try to pick up the guide book put out by the Department of Tourism entitled The Valleys of the Lot & Cele. It should be available in bookstores in Cahors. The caretaker of our rental loaned us his copy, and we found it chock full of information about the area missing from other books.
Carcassonne and Collioure

We made the drive to Carcassonne in about 2 1/2 hours from St. Cirq Lapopie, arriving just in time for a quick lunch.

My husband was very excited about seeing this town, as he had fond memories of his visit some 30 years before. Approaching at the main Port Narbonnaise, one is struck by the ramparts and towers, not to mention the masses of school children piling out of tour buses for their day visit.

We first took the time to grab a quick sandwich, and sat watching the tourists steam by. Afterwards, we walked along the walls of the city. I read to my husband that an 18th century reconstruction is what gave the city its towers and arrow-slits, and that Carcassonne barely passed muster for its designation as a World Heritage site. Nonetheless, it is impressive. I think Carcassonne would be best at night, after the day trippers have left and some of the magic can shine through.

Feeling that we had seen enough to satisfy everyone, we got back in the car and continued to Collioure in the Cote Vermeille. When we reached Perpignan, we inadvertently got off the autoroute and ended up on the costal D81. We drive through Canet-Plage, St Cyprien-Plage, Argeles and finally found ourselves in Collioure.

There is a 16th century fort and a still used 17th century fort watching over the tiny coastal village. Collioure was a favorite destination for the Fauvists, and in fact, a local bar, Les Templiers, houses some original artwork donated by Matisse, Picasso and Maillol, among others.

After checking in to our hotel, we strolled the town for a bit and then parked ourselves at a cafe on the beach, enjoying the views of the pretty harbor.

We had dinner that night at El Capillo. This was a nice restaurant, but a bit expensive for its quality. I had a decent bouillabasse that had generous amounts of shellfish and fresh fish. My children had the salmon ala plancha. The portions were tiny (not trying to compare to American standards)given the price, but they said it was very good and they enjoyed the pasta with pesto that was served as a side dish.

The next day, we woke to clouds and drizzle - a huge disappointment for all. We had had such perfect weather the previous week. We made the best of the day by taking long walks around town, checking out the numerous stores selling crafts. Later in the day, the sun did its best to shine, and my determined husband and kids made a trek to the beach for a swim. I cannot take those cold water temperatures. That night we had a wonderful meal at Le Zouave. The restaurant serves generous portions of tapas and a decent house wine. We had some truly wonderful dishes here, including the chickpeas with chorizo, fried calamari, steamed mussels and patatas bravas. My husband ordered their fried anchovies, which were also excellent. We loved the chickpea dish so much, we ordered a second round. All in all, we ordered 7 tapas dishes, wine, bottled water, desserts, coffee and a glass of Banyuls to accompany the chocolate cake and we paid less than 50 euro. A true deal.

The next morning, we were to leave for Cadaques, but found that the weekly market was about to open. My daughter and I went to Les Templiers for their 5 euro continental breakfast (excellent coffee and OJ) and then grabbed the guys and spent a couple of hours browsing the various offerings. We sadly waited too long to order the delicious looking paella that a woman was selling. She had sold out one pan and had sold the entire second pan (this was HUGE) to one family that must have been taking it home for Sunday lunch. We settled on very good pizzas and then loaded up the car and made our way south on the coastal road.

The drive from Collioure to Cadaques was the most nail biting experience I have had in a long time. The roads rise and fall, twisting and turning with little to keep a car from plummeting over the cliffs. The kids enjoyed watching me cringe. This honestly was worse than a roller coaster ride! Reaching the Spanish border, we saw the abandoned check points and change bureaus that I surmise closed with the establishment of the EU. It was truly desolate. After several more hair pin turns and getting lost once, we finally approached Cadaques.
Cadaques and Dali

After the harrowing drive from Collioure, we arrived in Cadaques mid-afternoon when most shops are closed. Luckily, we easliy found our hotel, the Playa Sol, perfectly situated on the bay within an easy walk of the town center.

Like Collioure, Cadaques was a haven for artists. Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso are among its former residents. In fact, Dali spent his childhood summers here.

After checking in, we left the kids in their room to hang out while my husband and I explored the small town. Later that evening, we took the kids to a beach front snack bar and let them have hamburgers for dinner. After depositing them back at the hotel, we headed to Es Trull for a good meal of paella.

We had previously made arrangements to visit Dali's house in Port Lligat. Visits are limited and reservations are required, so be sure to book ahead.

Dali's house is well worth a visit. The artist and his wife converted a group of fishing shacks into an amazing, surreal abode. His home has several spectacular views of Cap de Creus, and the windows which look out over the bay frame the views perfectly.

In the house, you will see Dali's whimsical touches in everything from the stuffed polar bear in the entry, to the buffalo head with wings in the outdoor dining room, the cricket cage in the bedroom to the egg sculptures in the garden. Artists will love Dali's studio.

The tour is broken down into sections, and each guide differs on his/her ability to speak English. Though I was able to understand a good bit of the tour, a kind young woman in the tour group helped translate some of the more difficult parts for us.

That evening, we attempted to visit the famous and affordable restaurant, Casa Anita. We arrived around 9 PM and they were filled for the evening. Disappointed, we went to our second choice and had a very good meal at Can Pelaya. We had hoped to try zarzuela, a Catalan fish stew of sorts, but one must order in advance to get this dish. We settled on sole ala plancha (grilled sole) and razor clams. My son had excellent canelones ala Barcelonesa. I did not tell him that these include chicken liver as part of the stuffing. The bechamel sauce covered that taste!

There is a wonderful internet cafe at Bar Casino that is open until 2 AM. We had a chance to catch up on e-mail and check the news.

Cadaques is drastically different from Collioure. The white houses with tile roofs line the hillsides, and are what many believe served as Picasso's inspiration for his cubist period.

The beaches in Cadaques are not as appealing as Collioure. This is due, in part, to the many fishing boats pulled ashore. Also, there are not as many beachside cafes in which to while away the afternoon.

On our second day, a great wind blew in, creating white caps and choppy water.

We are glad we saw Cadaques as a point of reference, but our vote is for Collioure if one is looking for pretty beaches and good food.
The Best of Barcelona

We checked out of the hotel in Cadaques before 10 AM, as we wanted ample time to drive to Barcelona, find our hotel, return the car and settle in before meeting our guide in Placa del Pi in the old quarter.

The drive to Barcelona was uneventful until we reached the outskirts of town where we encountered very heavy traffic. We sat stuck between diesel trucks, choking on the fumes and wishing we knew an alternate route. Miraculously, with my husband's driving and my navigating, we found our hotel without incident. We unloaded the car, checked in and left the kids at the hotel while we braved traffic once more to find the Avis office at Estacio Sants. That was a trick, as the entrance to the parking lot is well disguised. I had tried to arrange getting the car from the Gerona airport and returning it there as well, but our car choices were too limited and we need a bigger car for four adult-sized people plus luggage.

Finally back at the hotel, we had a moment to refresh ourselves before heading to the metro station to ride to the Liceu station and meet our guide.

Barcelona's metro is clean, safe and easily navigated. We had no problems buying our tickets or finding our way around. We emerged from the metro on to the famous Ramblas which buzzes with activity night and day.

Our guide, Laura, met us on time and took us on a fabulous tour of old Barcelona. She led us through the best of the Ciutat Vella, Sant Pere and La Ribera. Highlights were the Cathedral, Placa del Pi, Santa Maria del Mar and a glimpse of Barceloneta. Her knowledge and delivery made this tour very special.

After parting ways with our guide, we walked up the Ramblas along with a throng of tourists, being careful to watch our possessions. Everyone will tell you that petty crime in Barcelona is among the worst in Europe. Luckily for us, we were not victimized, nor were we witness to any crime.

We had great tapas at a hip new tapas bar on the Avenida Gracia called Txapela. The restaurant serves over 40 varieties of hot and cold tapas, and has menus with photos and descriptions (in Catalan) plus an English translation. This was a pefect meal for us, as we are not the type of people who can go to dinner at 10 PM. Exhausted, we dragged ourselved back to the hotel for a peaceful sleep.

The next morning, we had our second tour. We met Katrien, one of the owners of the tour company, on a corner of the Ramblas near the famous Boqueria. Katrien first took us to a granja cafe called Granja M. Viader where we sampled a fresh cheese served with honey and walnuts and my daughter indulged in the rich hot chocolate.

We then wandered the entire boqueria, buying a bit of ham and marvelling at the seafood and produce stands. I bought a coca de Sant Joan in order to help us celebrate the Eve of Sant John (more on this later) at the famous Escriba bakery.

Katrien kindly took us to La Manual Alpargartera to buy espadrilles (the Pope gets his here too!) where a lovely, grandmotherly woman took my daughter under her wing and taught her how to properly tie her lace-up espadrilles.

We tasted fried sardines and anchovies at a tapas bar, drooled over the chocolates a Xocoa and met an absolutely delightful Scottish woman, Katherine McLaughlin who owns a cheese shop called Formatgeria La Seu where we sampled three fabulous Spanish cheeses with a glass of red wine for 2 euro per plate. We bought a hink of cow's milk cheese to bring home (we made it through customs with it!) Katherine will be featured in a future issue of Food and Wine magazine, so be on the lookout.

Both of our tours with the guides from My Favorite Things, and we were very glad we had made these arrangements.
The Eve of Saint John, Miro and Gaudi

After leaving Katrien, we hurried back to the hotel to rest for a bit, for we had a lot of ground to cover that day.

When I booked our trip, I was unaware that it coincided with a special Catalan holiday, the Eve of Saint John (or St Joan). On this holiday, the people of Barcelona celebrate Midsummer Night's Eve by shooting off fireworks, building bonfires and partying on the beach until dawn. A special treat is Coca de St Joan washed down by cava. The day after is a holiday, and shops and many museums are closed.

We planned on doing a lot of shopping in Barcelona, so we had just a few hours to cram as much in as possible. My daughter had her heart set on checking out the vintage clothing stores in the Raval - a neighborhood going through somewhat of a renewal thanks to the new museum of modern art (MACBA). We visited GI Joe's and several other vintage stores, high-tailed it to Art Escudellers to check out the ceramics and then made our way to Cortes Ingles, the major department store.

Exhausted, we returned to our hotel and the kids turned in. My husband and I had a mediocre meal with excellent service at the Jockey Club next to the hotel and figured out how to approach the next day. Little kids were shooting off firecrackers and playing with sparklers everywhere.

I woke at 7 AM and needed coffee. I ventured out into the streets to witness the aftermath of the festival. Young people were still lined up outside the nearby disco. Women and men who had been up all night were tottering home. The detritus of spent fireworks littered the sidewalk. I found two cafes open, but the people inside were still drinking beer and the places reeked of stale beer and cigarettes, so I opted to return to the hotel and wait for the cafe inside to open.

Luckily, the Miro museum and all of the Gaudi sights were open. We first grabbed coffees and churros, and then took the metro to the Paral-lel station where we caught the Parc de Monjuic funicular.

The Miro museum houses 11,000 pieces artist's works, including the Tapis de la Fundacio. I have always loved Miro's work, but my husband and children were less than impressed. They were impressed, however, by Alexander Calder's Font de Mercuri.

After our tour of the museum (and its gift shop) we took the cable car down to Barceloneta and walked along the beach, feeling sorry for the hung over souls passed out in the sun. We had lunch beachside at Baja (pretty good seafood platter) and then took a cab to the Sagrada Familia.

This cathedral, still under construction, is simply amazing. The facade is rich in detail and I cannot possibly do it justice in this report.

We hurried back to Catedral de la Seu, as we did not go inside on our visit with Laura. Outside the cathedral is a beautiful garden and pool with 13 white geeese, each representing the 13 tourtures inflicted on St Eulalie (the patron saint of Barcelona). According to Laura, the geese were put there because their honking would alert the people of invaders. The inside of the cathedral is dark and the gilded chapels are beautiful.

In front of the church in Placa de la Seu one can catch sardana dancers on Saturdays (6-8 PM) and Sunday mornings. We unfortunately missed this special event.

After the cathedral, we hopped back on the metro to the Diagonal station so that we could tour La Pedrera, Gaudi's famous apartment building. By this time, the kids were worn out, so everyone was less than enthusiastic about dealing with the huge group of tourists crowding the halls. But, the building is beautiful and the whimsical chimneys on the roof top are fun.

We settled on another tapas dinner that night as we were too tired to deal with anything else. It was our last night, and we faced a long flight home. We loved Barcelona, and plan to return someday.
Barcelona tips

Barcelona is a big city and its sights are very spread out. To fully appreciate all the city has to offer, don't do as we did and give it only three days!

The smartest thing we did was hire Laura and Katrien from My Favorite Things. I found them through The Lonely Planet. Both Laura and Katrien are experts, and they helped us make the most of our limited time.

Our hotel in Eixample was very nice and in a safe location, but we wish we had stayed on the Gracia closer to Placa Catalunya as we would have been more centrally located. While the Barri Gotic is romantic by day, I can imagine it is a bit scary and dangerous by night.

We did not see pickpockets or witness any crime, but it is rampant. Everyone we encountered warned us to watch our belongings and avoid certain areas at night (the Raval, the Ramblas and parts of La Ribera). This was not a problem for us, as we did not partake in late night dinners. If we had, I would definitely have hired a cab. Though the metro is safe, I would not want to wander the streets getting to a stop.

The ride to the airport is quick and easy, and the Barcelona airport has lots of great shops to hit on your way out of town. A mini van for the four of us cost 30 euro.

Places we wanted to see but didn't: Parc Ciutadella, Parc Guell, Cal Pep (famous tapas bar) and Bar Paris (closed for renovations during our stay).

Barcelona - I will be back!
The drive from Collioure to Cadaques was the most nail biting experience I have had in a long time. The roads rise and fall, twisting and turning with little to keep a car from plummeting over the cliffs. The kids enjoyed watching me cringe. This honestly was worse than a roller coaster ride!

Good to know! I have been planning a trip to Collioure.

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