Train to Spain


By Judith Stafford

We were feeling bravas – patatas bravas – so we scrambled up onto an enormous train at Narbonne and cruised our way to Spain. Grabbing baguettes and mini rosés from the station café, we were all set for a picnic while passing étangs, flamingoes, frothing surf and terracotta baked villages.

The TGV had huge windows with massive blinds – so big in fact that you shared them with the person sitting in front of you.

The person sitting in front of me was watching cartoons on his laptop, so had pulled the blind down. When we asked if we could possibly edge it up a nano-morsel, so as to enjoy the aforesaid view, his Maman responded with a fit of gesticulations and animated outraged spitting.

I wouldn’t mind but he was at least 37. Either that or a gargantuan, hairy ten year old.

So, hunched down to peer through the three visible inches of panorama, we arrived in Barcelona Sants two hours later, like excited Quasimodos.

Vilanova i la Geltrú is a seaside town just past Sitges, an easy 30 minute train ride from the city.

It’s fringed with a selection of lovely beaches, is quieter than Sitges and a completely Spanish family holiday resort – no English menus, fried breakfasts or Anglophoam parties.

We loved that about it, although with a total lack of Spanish we often felt like ignorant buffoons. For example, when I once unselfishly gave free rein to Mr Rigsby in the choice of tapas. (I sometimes think that I am the only truly selfless person I know.)

There he was ordering away with gay abandon – cheese, charcuterie, tuna with anchovies….. then it all arrived… sandwiches. In his frenzied hunger and excitement at new found independence, he’d omitted to spot the word “bocadillo”.

Now, I like a ham roll as much as the next señora but call me old fashioned, it’s not my idea of dinner.

I spent the next morning shopping and called in there for a caffe con leche. As I sipped and surfed their Internet, feeling SO Catalunyan, a waiter mistakenly brought me a cheese sandwich, which nearly made me choke on my churros. If only I could have uttered a word I’d have shared the joke. As it was he just stared mournfully between his unwanted bocadillo and my coffee splattered chin.

To spend ten days cycling between golden beaches and dipping into warm waters was bliss. We had Home-Exchanged with a couple and their young son, whose bike I rode. I was told by the only other English speaker that I looked as if I should be in the circus. He called me Bippo and kept making beep beep noises like a clown’s car.

Not very suppportive.

The various beaches had chiringuitos at intervals, supplying refreshment of all sorts. They ranged from chic cocktail pop ups with Ibiza vibes, to humbler kiosks pumping heavy metal. But even they sold Cava alongside the Magnums and crisps.

The sea shelved gradually, so was popular with families, except for one cove with turquoise water and a thrillingly steep slope. This was the Naturist Beach.

Oooh that reminds me, we had some delicious mini chorizos one night, with Gorgonzola balls – fluffy on the middle, golden and crisp outside. There was also truffle veined peckeri…..sorry, pecorino. Damn this spellcheck.

Everything we ate was fabulous, fresh and extraordinarily good value. Jamon with almonds, tangy anchovies, saltcod croquettas, melting garlicky squid, gazpacho and olive oil ice cream.

It was all washed down with iced fizzling Cava – €2 a glass – or deep, leathery Riocha.

Villanova has its own mini Rambla and a marvellous covered mercado.
Apart from the fish, meat, vegetation, oils, spices etc: there was a stall which sold home cooked dishes – tender rabbit with lentils, luscious chicken and peppers, quail with olives, oozing cheesy croquettes, tortillas and crisp empanadas – at a price that you just couldn’t cook it for. So we didn’t.

Vilanova is a bustling commercial town and many shops were in sale mode, which made for some good present shopping bargains.

And there was a Zara.

Swirling a brandy around a balloon glass, flamenco being sung at a beach bar, toes in the sand, moon reflecting on the Mediterranean – it’s a top minibreak.

We ended with an afternoon’s shopping in Barcelona, checking our cases in at Sants station’s left luggage. (€10 per item.)

The market, the boqueria, was heaving with traders, shoppers and tourists but it’s still always fun, colourful and mouthwatering. We squeezed onto a tiny lunch table at Joel’s Oyster Bar and shared six ostras, salmon sashimi and – naturellementados – a glass of Cava.

With pulsing trotters we eventually staggered back to the station laden with Jamon, manchego, saffron, squid ink, truffles, an Andalusian jasmine, mini watermelon seeds and a doormat that said, fittingly, “Adios”.

The train ride homewards was beautiful, as we rocked through the Spanish countryside, with a backdrop of receding mountains like layers of torn mauve tissue paper.

Basquing in early evening sunshine, we chewed our market bocadillos and toasted Catalunya with wine from the buffet car. On crossing the border the scenery changed to salt flats and sodium encrusted ponds that ran pink, as the sun dripped like a paint brush, staining everything with vermillion ink.

And our lovely Catalunyan family obviously enjoyed the Minervois. So we’ve all agreed that we’d like to repeat the experience.

However I’ve found out that saying French words in a Spanish accent just doesn’t cut the moutardos, so next time I’m going to learn some lingo. Particularly as I’ll be accompanied by someone who’s a sandwich short of a picnic.

PS To save further embarrassment, remember that “bikini” means a “cheese and ham toastie”.

Recommendations in Vilanova i la Geltrú:

La Sal, Toscana, Jardin Secreto, El Dinou, Cal Purgat for tapas/dinner.

Nomada for coffee & drinks on the beach.

Yamamoto for amazing value and quality Japanese tapas.

La Daurada beach club for sunset cocktails and jumping into deep blue sea from their deck.

“Chez Mwah ?”, by Judith (Chris) Dowden, out now on Amazon in paperback and ebook.