Our guide helped all the other women get into their climbing gear to prepare for the via ferrata in Sant Feliu de Guixols “I understand you are the spare,” he said in heavily accented English as he pulled the climbing harness straps tight around my legs.
I offered an uneasy chuckle at his joke. I mean, I was the oldest and probably least fit among the six of us, but the spare? As in, “If we lose you along the way, it’s ok, because we’ll still have five left.” I had done some climbing years ago, but I was a little nervous about my abilities, and this wasn’t helping. Maybe I misunderstood.
Albert Gironès, a local adventure enthusiast and creator of the trail we are about to embark upon, accompanied our small group of travel bloggers on what was for most of us our first attempt at a via ferrata.
For those who don’t know: a via ferrata (from the Italian for “iron path”) – or via ferrada in Catalan – is a protected climbing route with safety cables that allows novice climbers to traverse cliffs or mountains in relative safety.
To master the path, you will need a climbing harness with three carabiners with which to clip onto the safety cables, and a helmet – not to protect you from falling on your head, but to protect you from rocks falling on your head from above. To illustrate this, Gironès tossed a stray boulder into the water below us with a hollow splunk.
The path begins with a sharp descent onto the cliffs from above, and then quickly you venture out onto the cliffs directly above the water.
photo by Albert Gironès
As soon as you grab the first handhold, you realize that you probably should have been doing some sort of upper body strength training prior to this.
photo by Albert Gironès
At some points you can’t exactly see where the next hand or foothold might be and you have to sort of feel your way blindly.
photo by Albert Gironès
A seagull, who had made a nest just above the safety cable, guarded her baby rather ferociously when we tried to slide by her.
photo by Albert Gironès
When one member of our group ran into some trouble, our guide quickly made his way to her, clipped her carabiner to the handhold so she could hang freely, and after letting her catch her breath and rest for a minute, talked her through the next few steps until she was confident enough to proceed on her own.
photo by Albert Gironès
I had done some rock climbing when I was younger, and I knew that paralysis that comes when you just don’t think you have it in you to finish the course. I once held up my team for a good 30 minutes as I tried to scale a wall just a few inches taller than my comfort zone. With encouragement, cheering, bribery and coercion from the rest of the group, I finally did it.
On this trail, my first nemesis was the wooden plank bridge about 20 feet above the water. I was frankly scared to death to cross it, even though I would remain clipped into the safety cable the entire way across. I remembered the Chain Walk my family and I had bested in Scotland, without a safety cable, where in order to even get to the walk, I had to walk across a narrow wall with a steep drop on either side. If I could do that (following 6 children under 13 who ran across with no safety equipment and no qualms), I can do this, I thought to myself. I took a deep breath of that fresh sea air, looked down at the plank a few feet in front of me, and put one foot in front of the other. I tried not to think, and I don’t think I actually breathed as I crossed. But once I made it across that one, I practically pranced across the next one. I was unstoppable. With every step and shimmy across the next cliff face, I felt stronger and sassier, and I went faster and faster along the trail, unhooking my carabiners and switching them to the next section as I went, so they could slip behind me as my safety net.
photo by Albert Gironès
As I waited at the end of the path for the others to catch up, savoring my victory in the imaginary race I had run in my head, I realized that what Gironès – the very kind, extremely supportive advocate for outdoor adventure for all – had actually said at the beginning was not that I was the spare, but that I was the expert, since he had heard I had done some climbing before. I’m sure I’m not an expert, but I did feel some satisfaction that I had mastered this trail with a group of women at least 15 years younger than me.
photo by Adrian’s Travel Tales
The Via Ferrada de la Cala del Moli is free and open to the public.
photo by Adrian’s Travel Tales
Equipment rentals are available at Parc Aventura in Sant Feliu de Guixols. You can also book a guide to go with you on the trail – highly recommended if you’re a beginner, if only to learn the safety essentials.
Best for ages 10 and up, and not for the faint of heart.
Many thanks to Albert Girones, Iconna – Costa Brava Tourism Board images archive, and Adrian Ann from Adrian’s Travel Tales for the use of their photographs.
This trip was sponsored by the tourist boards of Costa Brava and Sant Feliu de Guixols, but my opinions are always 100% my own. Here’s a recap of our first month on the road from twelve-year-old Magnolia. See how she feels about our family RTW trip.
photo of Adrian from Adrian’s Travel Tales by Albert Gironès
Our First Month on the Road
Our first month on the road has been great! We started in Iceland, then Portugal, Spain, England, and now Scotland. It’s been tiring and hard, but really fun.
Iceland was cool, we went on a tour of a lot of the natural sights on our first day, which was extremely cold and wet, but very interesting. Our second day was a bit better, less rainy but just as cold. We went to the Blue Lagoon Spa, which was basically a huge natural hot tub. It felt amazing in the water! We only stayed there for two days, which I was quite thankful for. The sights were great, but I think I could only stand that weather for a few days.
Our next stop was Portugal, where the weather was much better. We were there only for Mom’s travel blogger conference, so Calla and I spent most of our time in the hotel room watching TV. We had a little time out of the room, so we walked around a bit, saw some of the amazing architecture, and met up with a family Mom met through CouchSurfing. One of my favorite parts of the Portugal section of our trip was when we went on a teleferic, a ski-lift sort of thing, where we got to see all of the beautiful town from high above.
After our relaxing time in Portugal, I expected to be well rested and ready to make the most of our time in Spain. Nope! After we met our first host family in a small town outside of Madrid, we took long naps almost right until it was time for dinner. All of the meals we had there were awesome! A few days of our week with that family, we took day trips to Madrid. It was really cool. There was a lot of good shopping, but I think the main highlight was all the museums. They were gigantic! On both of the days there, we got to see our first grade Spanish teacher, Sra. Mooney. It was absolutely wonderful to see her after so many years!
After Madrid, we headed to Dueñas, a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. Our hosts were really nice, and I liked how the town was all together, so you could walk for half an hour and almost see everything! Our hosts had so much planned for us! We saw the churches, a church choir, and all of the amazing sights we could!
The next morning, we left to go to Girona, for another one of Mom’s travel blogger conferences. It was very pretty and had a lot of interesting history. There was an awesome ice cream place that we went to where I got delicious white chocolate and coffee ice cream. It may have been the best ice cream I’ve ever had!
We then spent a week in Garriguella, a small town in the Costa Brava area of Spain. Mom’s conference provided a place to stay afterwards, so we got a huge house to stay in for a week. There were 5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a huge family room with a big TV, a pool, and a big backyard, with ACTUAL GRASS so i could finally practice my gymnastics! It was a great house, but Calla and I were convinced it was haunted. We kept hearing noises, and in such a big house, its hard not to get scared. We were about half an hour from the beach, and we were all ready to go swimming, but it was too cold and jellyfish-filled to enjoy, so we ventured off to five more beaches that Mom had researched. One was filled with huge rocks that were super fun to climb on, and one had sea urchins in it, so we couldn’t swim, but we could enjoy the beautiful tide pools. There was also a winery near by, so we stopped to have a look around.
All in all, this first month has been great! I can’t wait for our next adventure to begin! If you are looking for the best hotels in Algarve, you should check out the link to the left. They are making it possible for us to keep the lights on and keep the blog posts coming.
In my mind, Barcelona was going to be my perfect city. Artsy, right on the beach, that wonderful Spanish schedule to which we had become accustomed over the past few weeks, great food, and Gaudi everywhere. So when our friends at HouseTrip offered me an apartment in Barcelona to try out with my daughters, we were thrilled. We looked online at all the possibilities, from places near the beach, to places near the park, to places off the beaten path. We had been enjoying being off the beaten path, so we chose a stylish studio apartment in a neighborhood called Clot that you don’t read about in the guidebooks.
Live like a local in the neighborhood
The location of the apartment turned out to be perfect for us: directly across from a metro stop (and Barcelona’s metro proved to be one of the quickest and easiest we used in Europe), and in a not-at-all tourist-oriented part of town, with markets and restaurants and a post office nearby.
The first night, we went out in search of food around 9 pm, and found lots of bars with tables outdoors where people gathered for drinks and tapas. Around a corner we found my favorite culinary sight in the city: the 24-hour fresh seafood automat. When you just have to have fresh squid at 3am, this is the place. In fact we found a few other automats in the area: one for milk, another for groceries. A clever operation for this late-night city.
During our 5 days in Barcelona, we came “home” to our neighborhood every night, and often went to a local bar for tapas instead of staying up later for dinner. This worked well for us, because even though we had been staying up later in Spain, our constitutions were not really adapted to the late night dinners. A snack around 9 would do us fine.
Eat in to save money
The apartment was nicely decorated, with anything we might need in the kitchen, just as it had been advertised. We loved being able to have cereal and coffee and hot chocolate (that was a Spanish custom my kids were happy to adopt) in our apartment every morning, and we’d pick up bread and cheese and sausage for sandwiches, so we were able to save some money for a few special meals out in Barcelona.
Enjoy the free internet!
One thing we’ve found frustrating while traveling in Europe this fall is that it seems that the hotel industry has decided that internet access is a luxury they must charge extra for, and sometimes the fee can be as high as 20 euros per day! Not so in most rental apartments, where you can search for properties that include WiFi access in their rental fees.
Read the fine print
Be sure to read the rules of the house when you book it, because some of them may have policies that you might not expect. In one place we rented, we were required to remove our shoes at the entrance. In another, there were limits on when we could watch television and play music. In this one, there was an extra housekeeping fee.
When we went to turn down the bed on our first night, we found it had not been made. And we could only find one towel. After some quick email exchanges and a late-night visit from the owner, we discovered that due to a mix-up with her housekeeper, the unit had not been properly cleaned, so we were able to negotiate a waiver of the cleaning fee that normally would have been charged.
The day we left, we ran into another fee: the early-departure fee. This had been clearly marked on the apartment description, but when I booked it, I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that our flight left at 9:30 am from an airport an hour away, and we still needed to return the rental car. So I ponied up another few euros to be sure we could get out on time, but I wasn’t happy about it.
One great feature of HouseTrip, the leading vacation apartment rental company in Europe, is that they offer a bit more security than some of the other apartment rental sites, because they collect the rental fees, and they do not distribute them to the owner until two days into the stay, to ensure that the host actually offers what they describe.
The key to living like a local in Barcelona, for us, was feeling like we had a home base there in a place where we didn’t feel the constant push of things geared for tourists. We could go down the street and buy our milk and cereal for breakfast along with our neighbors, stop for a drink and tapas nearby, and then come “home” and relax with our free WiFi while doing a load of laundry (extra bonus for long-term travelers like us!). Feeling at home on the road is a wonderful thing.
Book this studio apartment in Barcelona through HouseTrip for just €59 per night by going to the HouseTrip website: www.housetrip.com. The per night price includes WiFi, laundry facilities, two beds and a fully equipped kitchen.
Paige and her daughters were able to stay in this lovely apartment thanks to the generosity of the folks at HouseTrip.com. The opinions expressed here are all hers, though.
Is it really a traffic jam if there are only two cars involved? It might be if one is filled with grapes. Bah-dum-bum. Get it? Grape jam?
Please forgive me, I’ve been on vacation from my vacation this week and I’m starting to get a little stir crazy.
We’ve been staying in a wonderful rental house* in the small town of Garriguella, taking part in what the Spaniards call rural tourism for a relaxing week in Costa Brava, at the far northeast corner of Spain. This is where city folks can rent a place in the country, usually with a large family group, to enjoy some quiet time and get some fresh air. Our place, Niu de l’Albera, has large enclosed yard, with space for soccer – erm, football, ping pong and basketball (and gymnastics, if you’re so inclined), as well as a pool. An outdoor kitchen and dining area make this a perfect summer retreat. There’s space for at least 10 people, with 5 bedrooms and bathrooms, and plenty of space for everyone to spread out.
The town is clean, well-kept, and quiet, with a couple of small markets for essentials and a couple of bars and restaurants for the times you don’t want to cook. Most importantly for us, the town is a 20-minute drive from several beaches, parks, and museums.
The lovely beach towns of Roses, Cadaques, and Port de La Selva drew our interest, and we drove a very winding mountain road to get to the latter two. But what a treat! Both were really picturesque white seaside villages with small beaches next to that legendary green Mediterranean Sea. The vistas and the light on the mountains and sea make it clear why so many artists called this area home. Salvador and Gala Dali’s house in Cadaques is said to be stunning; we arrived too late in the day to tour it.
Instead we took a trip to Figueres to see the Dali Museum, a colorful showcase for many of his works. It was really impressive to see so much of his work exhibited together, to see just how far his talents and interests could take him. He experimented so much with optical tricks in his work, and really used the technology available to him to push his work farther. I had forgotten that he lived such a long life; so long that one of his later works is a hologram of Alice Cooper.
We took advantage of some cooler weather to hike around the Cap de Creus park, where the mountains meet the sea. Magnolia and I loved the rocky, sometimes treacherous paths, but Calla was not a fan. We managed to make the circuit of the Cap in just a few hours, and saw the Devil’s Cove, behind a tunnel carved by the waves. Ended with a very civilized drink and snack at the cafe at the top of the mountain by the lighthouse.
One day, we followed a small tractor pulling a load of grapes behind him to the the town’s agricultural collective, where local farmers bring their grapes and olives to be made into wines and oils. The operation is slick and modern, but the interaction is human. Walk into the retail side of the collective and you’ll be offered a tasting of wines and oils, which you can buy by the liter. In fact, the process is quite similar to buying gas, complete with nozzle and plastic jug. The flavor is much better, however.
*with the generous support of the Costa Brava Tourism Board
After a wonderful weekend in Dueñas, we drove to Zaragoza, a city we knew very little about, except that it was the home of Adela, an exchange student who had stayed with us two summers ago, and it was where my friend Angel had gone to university. The only other thing I knew wath that you need to pronounth it with lotth of th-th-th thoundth. Tharagotha.
Like most of Spain, Zaragoza’s history includes Romans, Arabs, and Jews, and evidence of all of them remains well-preserved here. The name of the city comes from the Romans, whose ruler called it Caesaraugusta, after himself. Say it fast. The museums of the Caesaraugustus Route do a terrific job of showing the scope of the Roman city and they offer some astounding details about daily life there. Here are some things that we learned there:
- Roman women loved to dye their long hair blonde, but did not like red hair, as this was the color for courtesans and undignified women. As you might imagine, Calla, my redhead, was not amused.
- Romans, like the Greeks, ate their meals lying down, usually with three lounges around a low table, leaving one end free for serving the food.
- Romans had pretty sophisticated toilets, as evidenced from the sewage system at the Roman baths museum.
Aljaferia, Zaragoza, Spain
Apparently the fall of the Roman empire was not terribly dramatic in Zaragoza. The society thrived until a peaceful takeover by the Goths in the 5th century. When the Arabs took over in the 8th century, Zaragoza was the largest Muslim city in Northern Spain. The Aljaferia castle is a Moorish masterpiece from that era, and has been in constant use since it was built in the 11th century. Soon after it was built, the city was taken over by Christians, and it was used by the Christian kings, and later the Catholic kings into the 16th century. At one point some of the castle served as a jail, and there’s some nice jailhouse graffiti preserved there. Today, the Aragon parliament meets there. For us, it was a beautiful and fascinating look at many centuries of Spanish history under one roof.
We really enjoyed our days in Zaragoza, and not just for the history there. The city is small enough to explore on foot, but big enough to have a thriving city center with lots of great shopping. Sorry, Madrid and Barcelona, but the people of Zaragoza, on average, out-style you. Calla and Magnolia were happy to join the shopping throngs on the main street, with its shopping arcades and tapas bars.
We loved our B&B in Zaragoza, the B&B Siesta, just across the river from the city center and an easy walk to anything we wanted to do. The proprietress, Marta, could not have been nicer. The B&B is in a flat that’s been converted to a 3-room B&B. We had use of the kitchen, and Marta put our breakfast food in the fridge for us the night before, with a shelf of the fridge for our use, too. We met some backpacking Kiwis in the breakfast room, and we all wanted to stay extra nights in this very sweet place.
We had some trouble making arrangements to meet Adela and her family, and in the end we decided to stay an extra day in Zaragoza so that we could see them. Unfortunately, Marta could not accommodate us for an extra day, so we turned to the internet to find a place for one more night in the city. Because our time at the B&B Siesta had been so perfect for us, we tried to find something similar, and booked a room in a 2-star hotel in the center of town. When we arrived, we rang the bell and were told we were too early, so we wandered around a bit until we were no longer early. We rang the bell again and were buzzed in. We found a broken window inside, and a very old elevator with no markings indicating where the hotel might be. We decided to try walking up to the first floor to see what we could see. We saw a door marked “Hostal” that opened as we approached. An apologetic and nervous woman of about 65 motioned us into the dark “lobby, and then returned to her position behind the reception desk. Nothing in the room appeared to have been acquired in the current decade. She picked up the phone (with a cord and a dial) and called someone, her eyes quickly moving from us, to the door, to the open door next to her from which we heard the sound of a tv and possibly a child. A large man of about 30 appeared and said he’d have a room for us in “just a minute.” He walked down the hall and back again. We waited perhaps 5 minutes as the woman continued to move things around on her desk nervously. There was a smell to the place that was not pleasant, but we couldn’t say just what it was. The man led us to our room at the far end of the hallway. There were three beds with mattresses you could lift with two fingers, mismatched sheets, and a distinct smell of stale smoke and possibly urine. Around the corner and up a step was a bathroom with no toilet and no window. Maybe someone had gotten desperate and peed in a corner. The girls looked at me now with some fear in their eyes. I looked at the sheets and thought, “Now might be a good time to review the guidelines for checking for bedbugs.” After a quick internet search, I told the girls to hang onto their suitcases while I checked the mattresses. I can’t say for sure that there were bugs, but I found plenty of other dirtiness there. We were not staying.
If you know me, you know I am not picky, and I am not one to make a fuss, but this place was downright creepy, and I could see that my girls were scared. They later claimed they heard someone scream. When the man returned to check us in, I made some motions to indicate that it was not going to work. I said “This is not what I expected,” and walked out the door. By now an older man was standing at the desk, so there were now three nervous-looking proprietors conferring about our room. The older man looked as though he might try to change our minds, but then he shrugged and let us walk out. Thank goodness for Priceline; I had already booked a three star hotel across the street for just a few euros more than this dump.
We had some time to kill before meeting Adela’s family, so we went in search of a museum we had passed while we were
lost driving around earlier. The Museum Pablo Serrano, named for the artist/collector who donated his collection for the purpose of creating a free art school in Zaragoza. The vision is at least partly fulfilled by the new home for the collection in a very modern building with massive exhibition spaces and a very cool roof. We enjoyed the small collection very much, and were surprised that none of the guidebooks or tourist information offices had mentioned it. Magnolia made use of the roof as only she can. And because I am traveling with 12-year-olds and we all enjoy some potty humor, we had to take this picture of the sign for Piso 00 (the ground floor).
We had a wonderful visit with Adela and her family that night, which put the whole hostile hostal hostel episode behind us. By the end of the night, they felt like old friends, and we had made plans for many future summer exchanges of children and nieces.
If you like Spain, and you’re on a budget, you might think about booking cheap holidays in Gran Canaria. Just click on the link in the previous sentence to find a company who makes it possible for us to keep these blog posts coming.
Would you take your kids to a stranger’s house to stay for a few days? Neither would I. CouchSurfing is not about staying with strangers; it is about staying with trusted people from your network, even if you might not have met them before. What I like about CouchSurfing is that people who register on the site build up their trustworthiness by becoming involved in the site, through hosting, surfing, and interacting with others. What I like about family CouchSurfing is that it gives my kids the opportunity to see how kids live in different places, instead of seeing a generic hotel or hostel room.
When we decided to visit Madrid, I searched for a family to host us there, and made a request through the CouchSurfing website. Antonio and Carmen have three young kids, and they had several good reviews from other people who had stayed with them, so I made a direct request to them to see we could stay there. We had several emails back and forth, and Antonio seemed very welcoming and eager to practice his English.
Now, I will be honest. Antonio and Carmen lived much further outside of Madrid than I expected, and the cab ride from the airport was much longer and more expensive than I thought it would be, but those were things I probably should have figured out on my own by doing a bit more research before arriving. Once we arrived, though, we found a really warm household willing to open their home and show us about how a Spanish family lives. Carmen met us there and immediately started speaking Spanish (Antonio had warned me that he was the only one in the family who spoke English). I might have understood 1/3 of it. She didn’t seem able to speak slower, and she didn’t understand my feeble attempts at Spanish, so it was a bit difficult, but we managed to make it through the morning, and in the afternoon we communicated through food, as she taught me how to make a Spanish tortilla. You can read a bit more about our time with their family here.
The rest of our week in Madrid was lovely. We were thrilled to be able to meet with Calla and Magnolia’s first-grade teacher (and first Spanish teacher), who now lives in Madrid, for a tour of an Edward Hopper exhibit, and later for dinner. We sped through the Prado and the Reina Sofia museums and hopped on and off the tourist bus for shopping and ice cream as needed. After two whirlwind days in Madrid, we rented a car for the next couchsurfing adventures in Spain.
I had found another willing host through CouchSurfing.org’s Family Welcome Group. Here you can post your itinerary and see if any hosts volunteer to host you along the way. Maria contacted me from her “unknown part of Spain” (her words!) north of Madrid, and asked if we’d like to come see it. Maria’s kids were older, but it seemed like such a nice offer, and I do like to see things off the beaten path, so we said yes. And we were so glad we did!
Maria and her husband spent the whole weekend showing us around the area around their home town of Dueñas, near Valladolid. We explored the family wine caves in Dueñas,
went to the oldest church in Spain, built in 661,
toured a 100-year old water-powered flour mill,
heard monks chanting,
climbed a church tower,
and picnicked by the ruins of an old monastery. We learned so much, and had so much fun, we almost didn’t want to leave! This, to us, was what CouchSurfing is all about: experiencing a culture in a way we never could have on our own.
If you are thinking about CouchSurfing with your family, I recommend registering on CouchSurfing.org and joining the Family Welcome Group right away, so that you can get to know other CSers and build up your profile so that people will be willing to host you when you’re ready to surf. And when you’re ready to surf, be sure to read host profiles carefully to see if you’ll really be compatible. And finally, when you’ve lined up your host family, communicate with them and make sure everyone knows what to expect.
I really think our CouchSurfing hosts went above and beyond with their generosity, and I hope that we can pay it forward to our next family surfers when we get home and have a couch* to offer again.
*We never actually stayed on a couch. Beds and inflatable mattresses were the norm. This is usually indicated in a host’s profile.