Monday, 26 May 2014

Destination Costa Barcelona, Catalonia

Costa Barcelona
Courtesy of  Barcelona Province Council

As soon as our eyes met, I felt an instant frisson of excitement. Love at first sight, it might not have been, but there was definitely a spark between me and Marquès. I felt he had my measure and understood me. 

The last time I had ridden a donkey was when I was five years old, so understandably, a few decades later, I was nervous about embarking on a 50-minute ride. As soon as I mounted Marquès, I knew I was in safe hands. 

Marquès did all the work. I didn’t have to tug on the reins, pull to turn or ask him to go slower or faster. In fact all I had to do was sit back and relax as we walked through the Maresme side of the Natural Park of Corredor-Montnegre enjoying being up close and personal with nature. There was a guide who led the group and the donkeys followed each other. You could tell they were pros and had done this before.

It was hard to believe that the Association of Rucs del Corredor, an initiative to preserve different donkey species, was only 50 kilometres from the city of Barcelona. The passion that the owners John and Paloma compan Vicente have is infectious and you can’t help but be moved by the seeing happy donkeys. 

Getting ready for the donkey ride

The star of the show had to be a baby who was only four weeks old, who appeared to bask in the joy of celebrity as it posed for pictures. No matter whether you are four or ninety–four, this visit is a great experience and incredible fun and maybe not what you would expect to find on the Costa Barcelona.

This area is full of wonderful surprises all waiting to be unwrapped. It serves up a rich and varied menu with wide-ranging appeal from stunning beaches for those who want the sun and sand holiday to hiking, biking and water sports for the more adventurous, to exploring the Catalan Art Nouveau routes for those who want an injection of culture.

The night before our visit to the donkeys, my companions and I had been in the nautical resort of Vilanova i la Geltrú. Sailing past super-yachts, with a flute of cava in hand, we wallowed in the therapeutic pleasures of being on a boat while watching the sun sink, giving the sea the appearance of a precious shiny metal.

Lavished with golden sandy beaches, this coastal town is a tourist magnet in summer. Crammed with excellent restaurants, bars, and night spots, it has a great ambience and charm. Hotels are mainly small and cosy. Don’t expect to find the luxury five-star here. You can easily take a break from a stay in Barcelona and come for a day at the beach or venture further afield.  

It would be impossible to talk about Costa Barcelona and not mention its culinary prowess. Of course, on the Mediterranean you expect to get wonderful fish. We saw the boats bringing in the catch of the day.

There was such an array of fish including sea bass, hake, squid and crayfish that I tried different ones every day. It was not only the fish that sent your taste buds on a sensory journey, the vegetables and fruit were also rather special. I can still taste the artichokes from El Prat and the strawberries from El Maresme. 

Catalan recipes for the most part are healthy – well, not all the desserts – I told myself convincingly as I tucked into huge portions at every meal. Anyway it would not have mattered if overindulging took a toll on the waistline, Vueling Airlines were not be going to weigh me for the return flight  home.

A vineyard in the Penedès

There were plenty of delicious local wines to wash it all down with. The Penedès DO (denomination of origin), tucked in between the plains of the Mediterranean coast and the nearby mountains is the largest in Catalonia and is renowned for its cava as well as having some rather good whites, rosés and reds. A trip to a couple of wineries was, of course, obligatory for educational purposes you understand. (More on wines in another post.)

During a ride on a Segway through a section of the Els 3 Monts, the hiking and trekking trail that connects the natural parks of Barcelona, (El Montseny, Sant Llorenç del Munt and Montserrat) was where I saw history and modernity rubbing shoulders. Whizzing through picturesque natural landscapes that have been inhabited since way back when, and dotted with pretty farmhouses – many now hotels – was stuff memories are made of.

We also managed to fit in a flying visit to the Delta of Llobregat, one of the region’s principal wetland areas for a spot of bird watching. It has over 60 species as well as other interesting creatures including 13 types of reptiles. Don’t forget to wear insect repellent, its home to plenty of mosquitoes!

Costa Barcelona dances to an independent spirit. Catalans have their own cultural identity, and it is extremely evident as you travel through the region. So much so that many think that “Catalonia is not Spain”, it is Catalonia.

By Daralyn Danns 

Getting there

Vueling airlines offers direct flights from London Gatwick to El Prat airport, Barcelona, For the best fares and more information visit

For a low-cost airline, this was pretty impressive


Hotel Solvi Passeig Ribes Roges 1 Vilanova i la Geltrú  Barcelona

Hostal Cal Pla ( Avinguda Catalunya 56 (Sant Llorenç Savall)

Hotel Porta d’Alella (  Av Sant Mateu, 5-9 Alella

Tourist information

Barcelona is much more ( and  (

Barcelona Province Council ( Tel: 00 34 93 402 22 60

Monday, 12 May 2014

Destination Budapest, Hungary

A heady mix of the majestic and romantic tinged with edgy grittiness, Budapest beguiled me from the moment that I first stood on the banks of the Danube and saw it for the first time. 

Created in 1873, when the towns of Buda and Pest, together with Óbuda united, it is no wonder that the 140-year-old capital city of Hungary has a dual personality. Separated by the not actually blue Danube, hilly Buda and flat Pest are connected by bridges, the oldest being the renowned Chain Bridge.

Budapest has had a troubled history. "Rich in revolutions," said my guide. But today this once Eastern Bloc impoverished city has metamorphosed itself with the trappings of international luxury.  But while much has changed, there are plenty of reminders of bygone days including centuries-old buildings and elegant architecture as well as stark remnants from the communist era. 

The Chain Bridge
Courtesy of
Hungarian Tourism

On the Buda side I did the touristy bit and wandered round the restored medieval Castle District where the Royal Palace, the Matthias Church and the Fishermen's Bastion are situated. After my dose of history  – I had visited the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery, two of the museums found at the palace – I headed up to Gellért Hill to be rewarded with some beautiful views across the river.

Back in Pest, I passed the impressive riverside Parliament and on to the beautiful St Stephen's Basilica and a stroll along Andrássy Avenue. This magnificent tree-lined boulevard which leads up to Heroes’ Square is arguably the most beautiful part of the Pest side, and reminded me of both Paris and Vienna. 

The House of Terror, also on this avenue, was once the headquarters of the Secret Police. The museum serves as a reminder of what life was like for the people of Hungary from the Second World War to the end of communism. A visit to the basement to see where political prisoners were locked away is particularly chilling. 

I nipped into the Opera House to see its amazing interior before making my way to the Great Synagogue, one of the largest in the world and which has a rather oriental flavour to it.  Also in the same building is the Jewish Museum.

After soaking up the culture, it was time to participate in a real drenching. Budapest is not known as the City of Baths for nothing.  Although the thermal baths date back to Roman times, it was the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries that established the bathing culture.

I visited the Gellért, a traditional spa hotel popular with tourists and Hungarians. It is worth visiting just to see the Art Noveau building. 

Forget what you have heard about the reputation of Eastern European food and wine  It is not all goulash and potatoes in Budapest, you will find plenty of great restaurants for a culinary treat.

Hungarians also love coffee houses and cakes. I had the most scrumptious raspberry tart at the legendary Cafè Gerbeaud. If you are looking for something a little different, pop into one of the hip “ruin bars” found in abandoned buildings decked out with vintage furniture found in mainly what was once the Jewish quarter and now named the Seventh District.

Budapest is at its most magical at night when it is all lit up. It is almost like a fairytale city that has been lifted from the pages of a book. 

Exotic and intoxicating, I loved every second of my weekend break in this great place.

By Daralyn Danns

Getting there

easyJet has flights from Gatwick and Luton, prices from £37.74 one-way. For more info and booking visit

This airline offers great value for money and the staff is pleasant and courteous. I can honestly say every time I have flown with this airline I have always had a good experience. Remember check-in is online.

Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace

I stayed at Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest. Rates start at £256.89 (incl. VAT) per room per night. For more info visit

Exquisite! Right next to the Chain Bridge, this Art Noveau palace has been lovingly restored by the Four Seasons. Service is excellent. But then would you expect anything else from what is arguably the best hotel in the country?