05/06/2016 - 05/09/2016
I realize the large majority of our city arrivals seem to be rather difficult and painful. I think that's because of our preference for staying in old town Airbnb's rather than in hotels on the main roads. For the most part our locations have been worth the trouble, but Girona might have been the final straw for old town accommodations when we have our own vehicle, even though we were staying in a hotel. Thanks to having crossed the border again, we had no Google Maps navigation. I didn't have the foresight to load Girona into Google Maps before we left France, so we didn't have cellular GPS either. That left us with our Garmin navigation, which should have been enough. We had no problem getting into Girona and finding the old town, but that was when things started to get hairy. As soon as we drove in, it was clear we were in a crowded pedestrian area. People slowly parted to let us through, but I had a strong feeling we weren't supposed to be driving there. The next problem was that the old town was three dimensional with a tall central hill. The street we were on split with one half ascending the hill and the other half remaining level. There was no way to distinguish between the two on the GPS and we incorrectly chose to remain at ground level, requiring us to leave the old town and circle all the way back in through the pedestrian zone we had initially entered. We went uphill the second time round but the driving situation quickly deteriorated as we found ourselves in a tiny but busy square that was obviously the old town center, and the GPS was directing us the wrong way down a narrow one way alley. It took ten minutes just to turn the van back around with a dozen overly helpful tourists shouting different instructions. With no cellular GPS and no ability to call the hotel, I resorted to parking the Iceberg next to a cathedral and headed out on foot with the Garmin. The Garmin screen is not designed for foot travel and can't be easily scrolled or zoomed. I couldn't find the name of the street where the hotel was located on the Garmin, and none of the locals I asked had ever heard of it, including the security guard at the church. I wandered around for twenty minutes with no luck. I got back just in time, as Cleo was desperate to go to the bathroom and Mei Ling had no way to take her with the other two kids in the van. While they were gone, I kept playing with the Garmin and suddenly I saw the street I was looking for briefly flash into view as the display constantly shifted and reloaded. I couldn't get it back again so I tried to freeze the image of the screen where I'd seen it in my brain. Once Mei Ling and Cleo got back, I set off again up an unpromising steep incline behind the cathedral, turned a corner, and found the hotel.
The hotel staff seemed unsurprised and unphased by my pitiful account of our troubles. They handed me a parking pass and instructed me to drive up the way I had walked because there was simply no other way to get there. Back at the van, we prevailed on the security guard to hold the pedestrians at bay while we reversed into the square and then gunned the Iceberg up the steep slope to the level of the hill our hotel was on. In the one stroke of luck of the evening, a single parking spot was free in the tiny row of spaces next to the hotel. Once we unpacked, I came across my old Spain sim card which should have expired long ago. I slipped it into my phone and it worked perfectly. I decided not to tell Mei Ling about that until the next day.
Somewhat recovered from the stress and disorientation of our arrival, we walked back downhill to the cathedral. It was clear this was no ordinary weekend in the old town. At first, I thought it was a religious holiday due to the floral displays that seemed to be everywhere, but after asking around I learned that it was actually the Temps de Flors, the annual flower festival. Despite being overcast and drizzly, the town was quite beautiful amidst all the decoration.
We had a decent dinner at a tapas place in the Jewish quarter, then went straight back to the hotel for a well-earned sleep. The two bedroom private apartment was just as good as most of the Airbnb's we had stayed at, with refrigerator and kitchen to boot. The next morning we cooked the kids breakfast before heading back out into the old town.
The thing to do in Girona is to walk the ramparts of the medieval city walls, which can be traversed all the way from the cathedral to Plaça de Catalunya, south of the old town. Thanks to the festival the ramparts were crowded with visitors, especially around the center, but we still got some great views of the old town and the rooftops of Girona.
There was a playground in Plaça de Catalunya, which meant the kids got a break from being carried, and then we walked a short distance to the covered market Mercat del Lleó where bacalao (codfish) was on prominent display.
We were now on the opposite side of the River Onyar, which splits the center of Girona, and it was time to find a place for lunch. Our first choice couldn't accommodate us, which was very lucky because our backup Txalaka was absolutely amazing. We arrived just before the afternoon rush and got the last table as a long line was about to form. It was another self-service tapas restaurant but much better than we had experienced in Barcelona, with outstanding sangria as well.
After a great lunch we walked over to Plaça de la Independència, then crossed one of the bridges across the Onyar back into the Jewish quarter. We enjoyed the narrow alleys and flower displays a little longer, then returned to the Iceberg.
Girona's old town had saved one last unpleasant driving experience for us, which was an arched passage next to the hotel that didn't look large enough to accommodate the van. I asked reception if we could return the direction we had come from, but they said it was impossible. We pulled in the mirrors and Mei Ling walked ahead to make sure no one tried to walk through the passage while I was driving through. I centered myself as much as I could and drove through at a mile an hour. I could practically hear the stone walls brushing the sides of the van as I clenched the steering wheel, although perhaps it was just my mind playing tricks on me. A minute later, we were back in daylight in another wide open square. I celebrated our escape from Girona with one last picture.
From Girona it was only an hour to our overnight stop at Tossa de Mar, a small town on the Mediterranean coast north of Barcelona. The main attraction here is the fortified medieval town on the hill that overlooks the beach and the rest of the city. We were also hoping to get the kids another beach day on the Mediterranean before we returned home. Our hotel was an attractive, whitewashed place with a pool where we decompressed for an hour before taking the winding road up the hill to the old town.
The walk up the hill gave circumferential views of the town, the chalky cliffs of the nearby coastline, and the open sea.
Once we reached the top, we descended partially to tour the interior of the old town and walked the ramparts much as we had in Girona.
I scouted out some of the restaurants in the old town but they seemed very touristy. Instead, we walked around the beach to the opposite side of the Badia de Tossa where we found a decent seafood restaurant with great views of the old town.
A steady rain the next morning quashed our hopes for another beach day, so we decided to head straight for Barcelona. Unfortunately it was Sunday, so we couldn't revisit the Boqueria. Instead we took the kids to the science museum, CosmoCaixa, where we kept them entertained with various game-like displays for a couple of hours. Hunger demanded that we bring our visit to an end, so we got a light lunch in a small cafe in l'Eixample. I couldn't come up with many options for the rest of the afternoon, so we went back to Montjuic to visit the Poble Espanyol theme park. I'd skipped this on our initial Barcelona visit because I feared it would be a boring tourist trap, and in fact it turned out to be a boring tourist trap. It didn't help that half the park was closed for a concert, or that we'd taken the strollers and there were stairs everywhere. We walked the parts we could and then returned to the Montjuic fountain to see the National Palace in the daylight.
Our hotel for the night was in Sant Boi de Llobregat, a boring suburb to the south of Barcelona whose main redeeming feature was its proximity to the airport. I hadn't wanted to deal with parking in downtown Barcelona or the possibility of traffic jams on the way to the airport the next morning. We got an early dinner of grilled meats not far away and spent the rest of our last evening packing and downloading new cartoons and apps for the kids to discover on the flight home. The next morning we got to the airport uneventfully and held our breaths at the rental car dropoff as the attendant gave the Iceberg a cursory survey. Miraculously she didn't notice either of the cracked brake lights and we bolted for the terminal. Another month long European road trip had come to an end.