Europe 2014

Europe 2014 Day 9: Three Countries in One Day

Saturday January 3, 2015

After about 4 hours of sleep – which really felt like instantaneous after hitting my pillow, I was up and ready to go for my 3 countries in one-day tour. I was half asleep and was glad that I had entered the location of the tour office last night onto my phone. Despite not having any cell phone data in Spain, I was able to have my GPS on (the phone was connected to the local telephone network with data switched off) so it allowed me to keep an eye on where I was supposed to go. I left the hotel and noticed a lot of people still sauntering back to their homes and hotels from a night out on the town. I passed a few little restaurants and shops that I made a note that I should check out when they are open. I passed one hotel and noticed a group of tourists up ready to go out to the airport or something.

I arrived at what I thought was the correct area for the tour office, but did not see anything that said Explore Catalunya on it. I did see a sign that said “Tourist info” so I followed that for another block or so and then was like, wait this doesn’t look anything like the map. Time was ticking away and I was getting nervous that despite my planning, I would get horribly lost (or as I like to say it, involved in a scenic detour) and miss my tour kick off. Sure enough, I checked my phone and I was way off course from where I needed to be. I headed back to the location where I had made a mental note the night before on where I thought the tour office would be. As I arrived at the square, I noticed a taxi driving around a building. On a gut instinct I followed it and sure enough that is where the office was. Whew! Much to my surprise, it was the same group from the hotel that I passed about 20 minutes earlier who were getting out of the taxi. I’m glad they showed up, as I don’t know if I would have found the office in time.

At 645 the office opened and we all checked in for our tours. There were 8 of us all together. 5 were in the group vacationing in Spain from the Philippines, 2 were from a military base in Spain, and then me. I think everyone assumed I was with the couple from the military base as they were American ex-pats working on a base. Still sizing up my travel companions for the day, I didn’t really say much and rolled with it. Our driver was Nico and we all piled into an 8-passenger van. I could tell the dad in the Philippine group was not happy. He mentioned to the driver that he was expecting a big bus. Of course, I was expecting a small bus, not quite as small as we were in, but hey, I’m on vacation so who really cares. It was Military couple in front with Nico, I was in the middle row with Dad and Daughter and then the two sons and the Mom were in the way back. I was glad I was next to the window and not trapped in a middle seat.

We headed out of Barcelona and by the time we were in the countryside, most of the people in the van were asleep. I may have closed my eyes for a bit as well, but I tried to stay focused on what Nico was saying. Most of the conversation in the van was in the front row as the Military couple was chitchatting away. We passed the scenic town of Montserrat – I really want to visit here and almost booked an afternoon tour to here, but I had to draw the line and at least give me some time to just relax on my own for the few short days I had in Barcelona.

Our first stop was in the small town of Baga just as the sun was coming up above the hill. Personally, I am not sure why we stopped here as most of the cafes and shops were still closed. They had a nice church – Paroquia de St Esteve de Baga which was also closed (you could peek inside). I spent the time freezing in the cold walking down to the river to take some photos and then wandering back down the small streets as I waited for the rendezvous time. There actually was a small bakery that was open and I was tempted to get something, but they did not have still water. So despite the warmth in the bakery, I went back into the cold and wandered around until it was time to meet back at the van. I found it amusing that a) Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” was blaring on the square loudspeakers and b) there was no sign of anyone else from my bus. I guess I missed something somewhere.

When we met back up again, both other groups came with big bags of snacks and drinks. Yep – I missed a memo somewhere. Oh well. One of the sons offered me some chips that I thought was super nice, but I declined and away we went. We weaved our way past some awesome scenery on our way to France. There were a multitude of nice lakes and amazing mountains. After an hour or so we finally arrived at the border. I do miss the old days of passport inspections and stamps, but I don’t miss the time delay and it was nice to just drive into France like I was traveling from California into Arizona.

Our France experience was the little town of Mont-Louis in the Pyrenees Mountains and being high up there was still some good snow on the ground. Nico told us that about two weeks prior the place was completely covered in snow and much more difficult to get around. We exited the van in the middle of the historic walled city and headed to a café where we got some excellent French hot chocolate and a pastry. I was disappointed that the French army had eaten all the Pan Au Chocolat, so I settled on a butter croissant. The combo of the two really took me back to my earlier visits to France and many a similar breakfast. After the breakfast, we were free to wander around and I made sure to pick up some magnets at the souvenir shop and then walked around. Again, like the first stop, not much to see in the town, but I made the best of it by heading up to the National Commando Training Center (army troop training not walking around sans underwear training). After that, I made the last minute decision to walk outside the main walls and really got some good photos. I am so glad I took that last minute hike outside the walls; it was really picturesque and made the stop in Mont-Louis.

It was then time to get back in the van again – bound for Andorra. I think the main reason for people to take this trip is the stop in Andorra. It’s a landlocked mini-country located between France and Spain and something to brag to people that you made the effort to go to. We drove back into Spain from France and headed to the Andorra border. Again, really beautiful scenery and then we ran into the weekly traffic jam. Apparently Andorra is super-popular on the weekends for its Tax-Free shopping. Similar to the outlets in the US – its hard to get into on the weekends. We inched our way to the border and then we pulled over. Nico apparently didn’t have a license to drive us into Andorra as a tour group, so he had to get two taxis to ferry the passengers into the center of town and he drove the van. It was at this point I learned that the normal bus was in the shop for repairs and that is why we were on the van of doom.

At the border, there was a delay – something with our Taxi drivers and the border patrol was going down. We ended up pulling over to the side of the road for about 5 minutes and the taxi drivers took our passports. I was thinking we were about to get arrested and deported, when they came back and all was well. I had made a sassy joke to the group in my taxi that if they were taking this long to deal with something, we better get our passports stamped. I had asked Nico about passport stamping in Andorra since they technically were not in the EU border agreement. Turns out the entire delay was because Nico had asked the taxi drivers to get our passports stamped! I was beyond excited when I got my passport and realized it had been stamped. Thanks Nico!

Finally, we arrived in the center of Andorra La Ville, the main city of the country. It was wall-to-wall shops and people and was not really what I expected. We had two hours in town and away everyone went. I was a bit disappointed as I remember from the Amazing Race the beautiful scenery in Andorra, but apparently we were about 4-5 miles away from that part of the country. I decided to forgo any local eateries, as I did not want to waste any time with food. I hiked to a McDonalds that was away from the super crowded parts of the main street and it was worth it. Good comfort food with Free Wi-Fi and I was able to post some photos I had taken and send a few iMessages. I had picked up my magnets and some postcards with stamps and spent some time quickly writing them out. Sorry if my prose was not that good!

After writing the postcards, I set off for the post office to drop them into the mail. The shopkeeper had said she could post them for me, but I wanted to make sure they found the right box. Also, even though I didn’t write anything racy, I didn’t feel like having her read my cards. The rest of the time in Andorra was spent doing some window-shopping and getting water for the ride back to Barcelona. The deals just were not that good to me due to the fact that despite the lack of taxes here, the exchange rate still made things more expensive then back at home. There was also nothing really that caught my eye that was a Must Have.

Back at the rendezvous, we met the taxi drivers and after a last second scolding by the police (resulting in a drive around to find the Military couple) we headed back to the border to meet Nico again. When we arrived we had to wait about 5 min before he showed up. Apparently he was getting hoodwinked by the Andorran Petrol station, claiming that he had filled up the tank with twice as much gas as he needed. They charged him for a full tank of gas even though he only needed half a tank. He had some choice words and promised to stop payment on the transaction when he got back to the office.

Back in the van we made the long trek back to Barcelona. The scenery was still stunning as we made a brief bathroom stop in La Seu d’Urgell. I took an obligatory church photo and then decided better safe then sorry and used the restroom in the pub. Nico was getting a coffee as the rest of the patrons were engaged in multiple poker games. A pretty amusing sight to say the least! On the road again, we made a quick stop for photo moment in the little town of Isona at a church that was 1800 years old (I think it was a Roman something or-other-that was converted, but I could not be sure).

Our last stop was at the Hotel Cal Petit near Oliana, Spain. The wife of the military couple convinced me to try Spanish Hot Chocolate that turned out to be something like hot pudding. It was rich and chocolaty. Not exactly my favorite, but it warmed me up nice and good. By the time we left the hotel stop the sun was setting on the hills and gave us some spectacular vistas as we ended the tour. Most of us fell asleep in the van on the way back to Barcelona, but I could hear Nico and the Military couple chatting away on topics such as slaughtering cows (it’s important to remove the testicles first otherwise your meat will be bitter..) and other wonders. The daughter next to me was watching what looked like make-up tutorials on her iPad as I decided to sleep some more.

We arrived back into Barcelona and as we made our way back to the tour office, we noticed a street festival and the group from the Philippines asked if they could be left of here. Nico was a bit puzzled but found a place he could quickly stop and let them off. Military couple figured they were near their hotel so they left as well just leaving me alone with Nico. I asked him if this was a normal thing and he said more times than you could imagine. I told him I needed to go back to the tour office since I had no idea where my hotel was since I had only come in the night before. He offered to drop me at my hotel, but when we got to the office I decided that I was OK to walk there on my own.

I stopped at a supermarket to get some water and a baguette for the morning and then headed back to the hotel to relax. The street that the hotel was on was so much livelier that I felt better about where I was staying. I rested for a bit before deciding to head out for something to eat and then to walk over to take a Gorn photo at the Hard Rock. Turns out that the Hard Rock was only a 10-minute walk away and so was Las Ramblas the famous street. After a quick bite to eat, I headed over and enjoyed the scenery. Everyone was telling me to be careful of pickpockets so I kept everything zipped up in my jacket. For a Saturday there certainly wasn’t that many people out and about. I did notice a lot of shady looking people just standing around aimlessly. Also there were these guys with 4 cokes on a six-pack ring. What were they doing? Selling them? Are they the Barcelona equivalent of the lady selling roses at the clubs? Also, the smell wasn’t very appealing. I’m thinking open sewers at their finest.

I decided to splurge on a gelato and then head back through the winding streets back to my hotel and call it a night. It was pushing 10pm and I was exhausted. Part of me wanted to stay up and see the nightlife, but the sensible side knew I had to get up early again tomorrow for another tour. Back at the hotel, I noticed I had neighbors tonight and they were loud. I was too exhausted to care and quickly fell asleep.