Three Great Day Trips from Barcelona

I’ve said recently that I don’t like Barcelona (and it sparked a big debate on my blog and Facebook page. Turns out even people who love the city think it has a dark side and that its people can be unfriendly at first, though many were shocked with my confession). So when my parents suggested it as our Christmas travel destination, I was initially disappointed, but figured a seven-night stay would guarantee we’d use Barcino as a springboard into a region that many other bloggers tout as gorgeous and cultural.

Thankfully, Barcelona is capital to a region with multiple encantos, even if I’m not a fan of its capital city or politics. During our stay, we were able to break out of the city thrice, discovering the beauty of Catalonia in its interior.

Montserrat

Upon my family’s last visit to Spain in 2007, the holidays presented us with the problem of what to do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We hiked a mountain, attended mass in English (Thank you, Costa del Sol and your guiri enclaves!) and had dinner at the hotel. This year, we were in a heavily touristed area, but had three days of festivals to counter.

You know the saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”? We became Creasters cum Holy Rollers on the day of Jesus Christ’s birth by driving to the Monastery of Nuestra Senora de Montserrat in the mountains of the same name.

My mom and I made the last cable car for the day and were its only occupants, affording unparalleled vistas of the strange mountain range that the monastery and its various hermitages can be found in – it jutted up from the plains like an upside-down saw. My dad and sister drove the car up, snaking through alien rock formations and curbside offerings. Because it was Christmas, the parking was free, but the cable car ran my mother 6€ and me 5€ with a carnet joven.

The monastery, apart from its surroundings, is also known as the home of the Montserrat virgin, whose face is black, earning her the local nickname of La Moreneta. The place was crawling with tourists, similar to my experiences at Covadonga and Santiago de Compostela, but we were in for a treat: the all-boys choir, L’Escolonia, would be singing at the noon mass.

The whole place was opulent, lined in limestone with marble floors, statues of saints and an impressive art museum. I could barely see anything but on my tiptoes once inside the church, but the slight breeze and commanding views of the area were all I needed to consider myself holy on that day.

If you go: Montserrat can be reached by car, bus or train from central Barcelona. I used this page to plan our trip. The basilica itself was free, and many pilgrims choose to bring picnic lunches and enjoy the views, rather than picking over sandwiches in the cafeteria.

Girona and Besalu

For ages, Girona to me was little more than a Ryanair hub with a direct flight from Seville. On my way back from Karnaval in Cologne, Germany a few years back, I had a seven-hour layover. Not willing to sit in an airport, I hopped a bus to the city about an hour north of Barcelona and explored it on a sleepy Sunday.

It surprised me, quite honestly. Humbling beautiful, historic and lively – even on a Sunday!

I told my parents it was a must-see, and my dad’s love of medieval architecture (c’mon, we’re American and never see old stuff like Jewish ghettos or castle ruins) made a trip to nearby Besalú to see the famous stone bridge. The town is teeny, cut through with cobblestone medieval roads and small, family-run shops.

We stopped in the tourism office, which was open but unmanned, and found that practically all roads led to the river Fluvià and the magnificent bridge. Many of the people we met told us that they were from elsewhere in Spain and had fallen under the charm of its Romanesque streets and history.

Girona was a quick drive away, and I remembered the city well – the soaring spires of the churches, the cobblestones under our feet, the street life. The clear day shone over the city perched along a river and its bright buildings, and merchants reopened after a few sleepy, glutton-filled days. We stopped for cupcakes on the main shopping street, beers in sun-drenched plazas, pintxo moruno in a bustling restaurant. Sadly, the smack-in-the-face Independence flags and signs got in the way of the beautiful buildings in the old Jewish quarter.

Even a horrible tummyache (I later got sick) couldn’t prevent my sweettooth from getting the best of me. I took my parents to Rocambolesc, the brainchild of the Hermanos Roca, famous Catalan chefs. The whimsical interior of the small place, which is a Catalan word for fantastical, was something like out of Willy Wonka, from a wall display of the six types of ice cream, a cotton candy machine and pinstripes.

I have to say that the hype, much like Barcelona’s, didn’t live up to my expectations. I let the attentive and sweet (ha!) shopkeeper chose baked apple ice cream with butter cookie crumbles and sweet apples, but could barely plow through half of it – it wasn’t sweet or even that tasteful! I agonized over the orange sherbet the guy parked on the bench next to me.

If you go: Girona and Besalu can be reached by car or bus from Barcelona, though there is a toll on the C-33. Rocambolesc is right near the red iron Eiffel bridge (Santa Clara, 50). The walk along the ramparts above the city are also not to be missed.

Andorra

This miniscule principality wedged in between mountain peaks of the Pyrenees range separating Spain from France welcomed me with a text message from my phone company. If Vodafone thinks it’s another country, it is in my book, too.

We snaked our rental car up through the Montseny and Costa Brava area of Catalonia before reaching the border. The signs were only in Catalan, but from the looks of it, we’d need to take just one road into the small country’s capital, Andorra la Vella. Upon parking, I felt like we were in a glamorous ski town – all mountains, clear skies and ski bunnies bustling up and down the city’s main shopping streets. Christmas sales had already begun, so we took our time browsing duty-free stores and brand name shops.

The day was leisurely, with the only hiccups being stops for a coffee or lunch. The city doesn’t offer much by way of culture, and our tour of the historic part of town – stretching back 800 years – took a mere five minutes. The tourism office claimed that hot springs, ski resorts and outdoor activities keep the country’s economy afloat, but I have a feeling it’s tax-free cigarettes and perfume.

Andorra is a three-hour car trip from Barcelona, or a four-hour bus journey via ALSA bus lines. Part of the highway has tolls. Don’t miss the breathtaking mountain views and the duty free shops!

Have you ever taken any day trips outside of Barcelona? Where do you recommend visiting? If you’re looking for a great place to stay, check out Barcelona-Home!

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. Wow they all look amazing!!!

  2. Well I sure missed out my couple times in Barcelona! The surroundings look incredible!
    Alex @ ifs ands & butts recently posted..from the minds of males.My Profile

  3. These all look great! I’ve actually only made it to Girona. I can’t believe I haven’t even gotten up Montserrat. Must get on that one…
    Jessica of HolaYessica recently posted..4 Things I Like Better About Spain Than the U.S.My Profile

  4. A visit to Montserrat in the middle of a record heat wave proved to be a bit much. Go during cooler weather – there are a coupe of hiking routes up in the mountains.
    Girona is worth an overnight stay. Stay in the old quarter and walk those streets at night. Go eat at Casa Marieta, you will not regret it. Cross that Eiffel bridge at night as you walk into the Barri Vell. Stay in the old quarter and walk those streets at night for an eerie feeling.
    Eduardo@Andaremos recently posted..Teide National Park in TenerifeMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Great ideas, thanks Eduardo! El Celar de Can Roca, one of the top restaurants in the world, is also in Girona. We opted for cupcakes and ice cream for lunch – we’ve got incurable sweet tooths in my familia!!

  5. amelie88 says:

    Oh my gosh Andorra, what a ridiculous place! I’ve been to Andorra-la-vella too, visited it for 24 hours while I was studying abroad in Toulouse. My friend and I were bored and decided to go somewhere close by and decided Andorra seemed like a good enough place to go. Didn’t know anything about it, just got on the mini bus that brought us there which was probably the craziest car ride I’ve ever had. The driver was a maniac and with all the hairpin turns going through the Pyrenees, my friend and I were so green when we got the bus station! I have never been more carsick in my life!!

    My friend and I just pretty much thought our whole visit was hilarious, from the terrible hostel we stayed in (the beds were so uncomfortable) to the lack of anything touristy to do to the strangely shaped thermal bath building. The map the tourist office gave us greatly misled us and led us on some wild goose chases, searching for the ever elusive perfume musem (because Julia Perfumeria is pretty much on every block!!). When we finally found it, it was closed for National Andorra Day or whatever holiday they were celebrating haha. We ended up shopping a good bit since everything was tax free and we did wander out of the main town to get some views of the town in the valley.

    Andorra is great if you want to go skiing or hiking, but there isn’t much else to do otherwise (apart from Julia Perfumeria and tax free shopping).
    amelie88 recently posted..Paseo por La LatinaMy Profile

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      I felt a bit let down by Andorra, as well, but we went around Christmas and there was very little activity, apart from the ski slopes! Apparently they’ve got great outdoor activities, but we decided to take it easy and not try and force it. I did get some new perfume from Julia, though!! Thanks for weighing in, guapa!

  6. Gayla says:

    I would love to visit Andorra. It just sounds like a fairy tale land. And, I’m crazy for anything medieval, so Besalú will definitely be added to my ‘must see’ list! Thanks!

  7. Tiana Kai says:

    Barcelona is still on my must list and hopefully when we do go we will stay a week or so. These other getaways are great, nice to keep in mind if I feel over the city and need to explore a bit.
    Tiana Kai recently posted..Italian croissants suckMy Profile

  8. stefano says:

    Great site. I also don’t like Barcelona. The police look the other way while thiefs target people. Especially Asians. It is in plain site. The people are not friendly and the beach is filthy. Las Ramblas is very dangerous at night especially by the waterfront and behind the Boqaria market.
    The best thing about Barcelona is the Cava. I like it better than the french champagne. I will have to try other places like Dali’s city and Sitges I heard is nice.

    • Sunshine and Siestas says:

      Hi Stefano, thanks for stopping by! I’ve only recently been turned on to cava, but it’s pretty delicious! Have you been to Seville at all?

  9. I think that is true wherever you go-the people are alot more interesting than the things. you are well on you way to being a seasoned traveler. take what you can from every experience. you are very lucky to have all these opportunites to see new things and you are still young!! Enjoy.

  10. I’m thinking about taking a trip to Cataluña in June, so thanks for the reminder about Montserrat!
    Trevor Huxham recently posted..The Food I Miss From Jaén Province, SpainMy Profile

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  1. [...] a trip to Barcelona with my parents and taking various day trips around Catalonia, I returned to work absolutely pooped and with zero ganas to move forward. The chilly weather and [...]

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