Travel review: The sights of Barcelona

ROOM FOR 99,000: The huge Camp Nou football ground, home to FC Barcelona.
ROOM FOR 99,000: The huge Camp Nou football ground, home to FC Barcelona.
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Duncan Seaman enjoys a family camping holiday at a park in a prime position for taking in the sights of Barcelona.

AT the top of a 60m-high column in the Portal de Pau square in Barcelona, a statue of Christopher Columbus points a long bronze index finger out to sea.

The monument, sculpted by Rafael Atche in 1888, commemorates the explorer’s visit to the city to show off to Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand V treasures from his voyage to the New World. It also symbolises something else about this great city: its shining optimism and forward-thinking.

It’s a spirit that’s infectious on even the briefest of visits to this corner of Spain, a place that, thanks to its temperate Mediterranean climate, can be explored all year round.

We stayed with Eurocamp, the UK’s leading camping holiday operator, at the Vilanova Park, just outside the Catalan town of Vilanova i la Geltru, 40km south-west of Barcelona. It’s about 45 minutes drive from Barcelona-El Prat airport and a short hop from several of the Costa Dorada’s many sandy beaches.

Though large – at 1,399 pitches – Vilanova Park was quiet and orderly during our autumn half-term break. It’s an attractively designed parc, surrounded by landscaped gardens shaded by palm trees.

The facilities are designed for a relaxing stay – the parc, for example, has its own spa/wellness centre that includes a Jacuzzi and sauna as well as a solarium and gym. Importantly, as temperatures dip at this time of year, the centre also houses a heated indoor swimming pool (for which there was a separate charge if, like us, you were staying for fewer than seven nights). Our boys particularly enjoyed it, though the pool could get quite busy in the afternoons.

Though closed for autumn and winter, there are also four outdoor pools – two for adults and older children and two for little ones. One boasts spectacular fountains, floodlit at night.

Those with a sporty streak are certainly well catered for at Vilanova Park. For aspiring Andy Murrays or Heather Watsons, there are two full-size tennis courts; there are facilities for badminton or table tennis too. The basketball-cum-football courts were a particular draw for boys; alternatively there is cycle hire and a 12-hole mini golf course – negotiable even by hackers like me.

For younger ones there are adventure playgrounds dotted around the parc while adults could work up a sweat in the regular fitness, salsa and aquatic classes.

The parc has its own well-stocked supermarket, a boutique selling newspapers and travel essentials, and an internet salon. A bar, restaurant and small amusement arcade is housed nearby in an attractively converted Catalan farmhouse. Two evenings a week there was a mini-disco for children, there were also Spanish classes and live music.

Our accommodation was a Sunlight mobile home, the newest in the Eurocamp range. With two bedrooms, it was very comfortable for a family of four; the cleverly designed, spacious central living area also had a sofa bed with room for two more, had it been needed. The kitchen was well-equipped for dining in, and included a full-size fridge-freezer. In warmer weather, the outdoor decking looked the perfect place to enjoy a barbecue. The bathroom was modern.

In Vilanova i la Geltru, 3km away, you will find a long sandy bay where you can go windsurfing, canoeing or sailing or simply lay back in the sunshine and watch the world go by. In the summer months a little train operates and along the seafront are plenty of places to dine – seafood being a speciality as Vilanova i la Geltru is Catalonia’s third largest port. The town is also recognised for xato, a winter salad dressed in a sauce of almonds, olives, fish, oil and garlic which is celebrated in annual festival.

In August the town hosts the Festa Major, featuring music, dancing, parades and circus skills; head out here in late February and you will see the Carnaval, during one part of which rival groups good-humouredly throw boiled sweets at each other.

The town is best known, however, for its international world music festival, a three-day event which began in July 1981 and is renowned as the most important showcase of its kind in Spain.

Culture vultures will enjoy the Biblioteca Museu Victor Balaguer, founded by a Catalan poet, historian and diplomat and featuring treasures from ancient Rome and Egypt alongside paintings and sculptures; railway enthusiasts will make a beeline for the Museu del Ferrocarril, close to the town’s modern train station which runs regular services to Barcelona.

Vilanova’s other claim to fame is its roller hockey team, who play in green and white at Pavello de les Casernes and have been known to give the mighty FC Barcelona a run for their money.

On a practical level for those on a self-catering holiday, the town also boasts two hypermarkets; there are also supermarkets to be found in nearby Cubelles and Cunit.

A 10-minute drive up the coast is Sitges, apparently a favourite seaside resort with Eurocamp customers – and with good reason. Smaller and less built-up than Vilanova, it’s a lovely, easygoing place with a long promenade frequented by all ages, and sandy beaches that are again popular with surfers. Up in the town’s narrow, winding streets, we enjoyed particularly good tapas in a street cafe; there are plenty of characterful boutiques too.

The highlight of any visit to this part of Spain, however, has to be Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and a city of some three million people. Bright, bustling and funky, it’s probably best seen by the first-time visitor, like ourselves, on a Barcelona Bus Turistic. Three colour-coded routes operate – north, east and central and, if you buy one or two-day ticket you can hop between them at various stops to take in the sites you want to see. We first chose the blue route, which took us from the Placa de Catalunya north-eastwards past the ornate Casa Batllo, bejewelled in pottery and glass, the magnificent La Pedrera, whose undulating stone and iron exterior was designed by Antoni Gaudi, and the imposing triangular Casa Les Punxes, with spiky red-brick towers the vision of architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Our destination was the Sagrada Familia, the cathedral designed by Gaudi but unfinished when he died in 1926, tragically struck by a tram. Almost a century later the building is still under construction, but nevertheless it’s breath-taking, a facade so beautifully detailed you could study it for days.

Walking back a few blocks to Passeig de Gracia La Pedrera, we took the red bus route that circles around central Barcelona, viewing the old working class district of Sants, where even the city’s central station is surrounded by impressive sculptures such as three towers like lighthouses and a giant, spiky dragon, and a large market. In the huge Placa d’Espanya stands the imposing Arenas, once a bullring, now a sympathetically-designed shopping mall and leisure centre. Up the hill is the city’s green lung; from the steps of the Palau Nacional de Montjuic, fronted by giant fountains, you have a panoramic view of Barcelona. Further up is the Estadi Olimpic de Monjuic, built for the 1992 Olympic Games and notable for the Calatrava tower shaped like a giant Olympic torch.

Down the hill is the Port Vell, the busiest in the Mediterranean and popular with cruise ships; here there are museums and an aquarium, the statue of Columbus and the World Trade Centre. Eastwards is the thriving Port Olimpic and Citadella Villa Olimpica, dominated by the Hotel Arts and Mapfre tower. Heading west, you glimpse the Agbar tower, a 142-metre high, torpedo-shaped building, pass the large Parc de la Cuitadella-Zoo and end up in the Gothic quarter, where you will find the splendid Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, and La Rambla, a must for any tourist with its street stalls teeming with life and heady with the scent of roses.

Had we had time, we would have visited the Picasso and Miro museums, the Castell de Montjuic and taken the cable car which swoops down from the Parc de Montjuic to the port.

Bus Turistic will also take you up the hectic Avenue Diagonal to the Camp Nou, home of FC Barcelona, arguably the world’s greatest football club. We actually drove there, relatively easily with sat nav, from Vilanova. With a capacity of 99,000, this is a real cathedral to football; the trophy room alone is vast and filled with history and memorabilia and lots of interactive displays. Here you are reminded of the club’s greats – from Paulinho Alcantara, scorer of 357 goals in 357 games between 1912 and 1927, to Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Ronaldinho and modern footballing gods such as Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez. There’s even mention of Gary Lineker. You can view the presidential suite, the dressing room complete with Jacuzzi, and get a frisson of excitement as you walk down the players’ tunnel down to the enormous pitch. On the way back you can learn the club’s anthem and our sons loved having their picture taken with the Champions League trophy.

Tickets for both the bus tour and stadium tour are best purchased in advance – with a substantial saving – from the reception at Vilanova Park.

With so much to see and do, it made for a great holiday and the parc is a good base to further explore Catalonia, being a short drive from picturesque Tarragona and the famous monastery at Montserrat.

Flights from Leeds-Bradford International Airport to Barcelona are regular and all year round with Leeds-Bradford’s facilities are much improved by the new terminal, which now houses expanded shops and eating facilities plus a very comfortable Premier Lounge with WiFi and television and video games for youngsters.

Santa on the beach.

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