I’m sitting in front of Casa Batlló, one of Gaudi’s infamous architectural creations. Behind me, cars and pedestrians criss-cross the busy Barcelona boulevard. The bustle and traffic are startling to me after all these months in Canadian wilderness, but, as I pause and soak in the whimsical beauty lit up by rays of mid-afternoon sun, I am happy. So, so happy.
It’s not just because I’m traveling again – after a two-month travel hiatus – that I’m so happy, nor is it simply because I’m in a new and exciting city.
I’m so happy because two of my best friends in the world are about to join me in Europe for a ten-day reunion!
I met Alex and Erin almost a decade ago in Bangkok, Thailand. We had all arrived mid-school-year to teach English at a private bilingual school in the city. Though our time together in Thailand was brief, we took full advantage of school holidays to explore the region, creating lifelong memories along the way (one of my best ever was camping on a deserted island in the Philippines with Erin; I’ve also had a few epic trips with Alex since then, most notably to Egypt and Zimbabwe).
Alex now lives in Singapore and Erin in Washington, DC, so the only time the three of us have been together since Thailand was in 2012 for Erin’s wedding. Here in Barcelona, all that was about to change.
Three Nights in Barcelona
Barcelona is the perfect backdrop to a girls’ trip. The city is large, exciting and energizing. The weather is mild and sunny. Cafes and tapas bars line the streets – the perfect places to have long lunches. Which is exactly what we did. Over glasses of wine and mini tapas plates, we reconnected and filled one another in on each of our lives. We looked like total locals with our late, lingering meals.
Erin hadn’t been to Europe in about 14 years, so we did make sure to do a bit of sightseeing. Most of it involved Antoni Gaudi. We visited the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral that is perhaps the landmark of Barcelona. Its construction began over 100 years ago, but, because of its magnitude (and other factors), the cathedral is still not finished. It is hoped that the structure will be complete by 2026, exactly 100 years after Gaudi’s untimely death.
Our Air BnB was only a 7-minute walk from the Sagrada Familia, so we were lucky to catch a glimpse of its imposing exterior several times and in different light. Though the interior was celestial, for me, the cathedral is all about its exterior facades and skyscraping arches. I’m happy we got to soak up the grandiosity of the Sagrada Familia over the course of our three-night stay in Barcelona.
We also visited Gaudi’s Parc Guëll. The park is massive, but we concentrated our guided visit on the inner Monumental Zone, where you can find a few preserved homes, Gaudi’s infamous mosaic salamander, and the old viaducts. We were so lucky that it was warm and clear, and so we stayed long enough to sun ourselves, and to catch an epic view of the entire city, with the Mediterranean Sea in the background.
With the rest of our time in Barcelona, we wandered fairly aimlessly around the city (talking, of course, all the while). We went to Barceloneta, the area of town where locals congregate along the city beach. It was pretty happening on this Saturday afternoon, with hawkers set up along the wharf and bands performing on the street. We had an al fresco drink, Alex got a mini-massage, and we dipped our toes in the Mediterranean as we watched an incredible lightning show in the sky over the sea.
We also wandered around the alleys off Las Ramblas, in the Gothic area. We stumbled upon the Catedral de Barcelona, a small farmer’s market selling cheese and wine and honey, and we feasted on the best churros y chocolate in town.
We ate really well throughout our trip, actually (thanks to Erin, who had done her research). Our first evening we dined at La Yaya Amelia, where we had a tasty (and affordable) three-course meal. Funnily, the restaurant was almost entirely empty at 8pm, but started to get packed as we left around 10pm. Our final afternoon, we stumbled upon Arume Restaurante, a super popular and funky place famous for its paella. Amazing food and ambiance. I highly recommend both!
A Night in Carcassonne
From Barcelona, we took the train to Carcassonne, France. I had long wanted to visit this city, as it has a massive medieval Unesco World Heritage fortress on its hill. On the day we arrived, we were shocked by the wind and plummeting temperatures, but we braved it and visited the fortress, anyway.
Actually, I didn’t plan the trip very well. In the off-season, the castle and ramparts close by 5pm, and we were too late arriving to enjoy the recommended two-hour visit. We were happy to know we could still walk around the outskirts of the ramparts, which allowed us to get sweeping views of the city. The buildings sported the same red Roman tiles as the roofs in the south of France, but because of the dampness here, the red has gone a greenish grey. I like that you can tell which region of France you’re in based on the color of the roofs!
Carcassonne’s Cité is full of kitsch tourist shops, which doesn’t make for the most authentic experience. I think tourism has ruined what could have been a very charming village. But what makes Carcassonne absolutely worth the visit is a view of the fortress walls at night. The place looks like a Disney fairy tale castle and it’s hard to believe that, not only is this place real, but it’s 1000 years old.
When in Carcassonne, one must try the regional dish of cassoulet, a white bean and meat stew. Because it was Monday, the restaurant our Air BnB hosts had recommended was closed, but the girls still managed to try the dish at the only restaurant open in the “nouvelle cite” (for one should never try cassoulet in the fortress). Then, because it was cold and our apartment was just so darn cute, we bought wine, cheese, charcuterie, and chocolate mousse, and headed home for a proper French girls’ night. I’m so glad Air BnB exists, as we were able to find lovely private apartments at each destination, which maximized the time we could spend simply being together.
Two Nights in Bordeaux
This city was high on Erin’s destination list, because she’s totally in love with Bordeaux wine. Our first afternoon there, we simply wandered around the old town, which is mostly pedestrian streets and funky shops and brasseries. Because it was still so cold, we had a hot beverage under the heat lamp overlooking a cathedral and a square. It felt very French.
That evening, we visited L’école du Vin, where we could sample glasses or flights of wine from the Bordeaux area. The staff was knowledgeable, the environment sophisticated, the glasses affordable, and the pours generous. I loved it, and Erin was in absolute heaven.
The next day, we decided to make her dream of visiting a real Bordeaux château come true. We hopped on a local train to St. Emilion, one of the most famous wine-making regions of Bordeaux. We had no plan and no idea what to expect, but the village was so charming that I didn’t even care if we didn’t visit a single château. We ate crêpes by another cathedral overlooking another square, caught glimpses of the green-grey-tinged Roman tiled roofs, and wandered past endless rows of perfect grape vines.
We did eventually head to the tourist office, and they were very helpful in organizing a wine-tasting visit for us. First we visited one of two domaines in the village proper that allow you to wander through their underground wine cellars for free. It was a quick visit followed by an equally quick two-wine tasting.
Next, we visited Château Haut Sarpe, a smallish family vineyard. The tour was in French (because we booked last-minute in the off-season) so I did quite a lot of translating, which allowed me to truly understand the entire process of wine-making from grape to bottle. I found it absolutely fascinating, and would recommend a visit for any wine-lover or curious individual. It made the tasting at the end all the more delicious and meaningful. One day, I’d love to return to Haut Sarpe in September to help with the grape harvest for a few weeks – what a cool cultural experience that would be!
Four Nights in Agde
After getting to visit three new European destinations (yay!), I brought the girls home to Bruno’s neck of the woods. I wanted Erin to meet Bruno and see our little home and village (Alex already had back in 2015), and it was also a way for us to save a bit of cash while winding down the tourism part of our trip and focusing on soaking each other up as much as possible (because who knows when the three of us will be together again?).
I took the girls to La Table d’Emilie, my favourite French restaurant in Marseillan, for a gourmet five-course meal. They loved it all up. I took them to Pézénas, the medieval fortified city full of talented artisans selling their wares (the shops are much more interesting here than in Carcassonne). And I took them to the local spa, followed by an outdoor lunch of moules frites along the edge of the Herault River.
But mostly we cooked. We talked. We walked the beach. We talked. We sang. We talked. We laughed. We talked.
And we promised each other we would meet again soon. This trip had been rejuvenating and illuminating for our souls, and we knew we needed to make one another a greater priority in our lives.
That’s the thing about long distance friendships. Time makes you slowly forget, adapt. You lose the urgency of being with that person. But the moment you’re next to one another, you remember. You pick up where you left off, you soak it all up, you fill your heart with that person, and you hold on to them that much more tightly because you don’t know when you’ll be able to do it again.
I’m sitting at my departure gate at the Barcelona International Airport. Our girls’ trip has come full circle, as I’ve returned to the city where just ten days before I happily awaited Alex and Erin while contemplating the quirky architecture of Barcelona’s renowned Antoni Gaudi. I’m tired – exhausted, actually – but I am happy. So, so happy. Over the past ten days I have discovered three new regions of Europe, which is always exciting for a traveler. Better yet, I discovered these regions with friends. There’s no better way to discover a place.
Most of the photos for this post are courtesy of my lovely talented friend, Erin Socia. Thanks for letting me share, and for being our official trip photographer!!!