Last summer, writer and communications specialist Juliet Shaw took the ultimate road trip: Manchester to Barcelona by car via France, Austria and Italy. Be inspired by her colourful journey.
When I was eight or nine I saw Summer Holiday for the first time. I was fascinated by the idea of making my way around Europe on the open road and the desire never left me. So, in August 2015, I set off in my battered but trusty Nissan Almeira with my 16-year-old daughter, Amelia, and two-year old cocker spaniel, Flossie (travel in the EU with a dog – or cat or, bizarrely, ferret – is relatively easy thanks to the European pet passport scheme).
Our ultimate destination was Barcelona, to a cabin in the hills just outside the city. We also have friends in north-east Italy, so we plotted our route around these two main stops.
Our ultimate destination was Barcelona, to a cabin in the hills just outside the city.
The quickest and easiest route to Italy is straight through France via a succession of toll roads, but we were in no hurry and wanted to see as much of Europe as we could. We chose the non-toll route taking us from Calais to Belgium, through Luxembourg, Germany and into Austria, then across the Alps to Italy. From Italy, we drove around the coast of France and into Barcelona, saving the direct route through France for the way home.
Unless you’re travelling with a professional navigator, I strongly recommend investing in a SatNav. Mine, a Garmin Nuvi 2559, was £120 – but I’m pretty sure it saved me more than that in fuel as I avoided driving miles off course. Also, European countries have different requirements for driving; France requires a red triangle, alcohol breath testing kit and headlight filters; in Italy you must drive with your headlights on at all times and have a high-vis jacket within reach (not in the boot). This isn’t an exhaustive list and the AA has the information on its website.
We set off from Manchester and planned our first overnight stop in Calais, where there are plenty of overnight options. For a mid-range option, try the Holiday Inn Coquelles with its pool and spa. For something more upmarket, the Chateau de Cocove provides tranquil comfort and fine dining accompanied by wine from the chateau’s own cellar, with 22 individually decorated bedrooms.
Our second stop was the Austrian Tyrol, an area famous for skiing and winter sports but, with an average summer temperature of around 24 degrees, it’s also perfect for hiking, horse riding, cycling or swimming in one of the region’s many bathing lakes. We stayed at the Gasthaus Sonne in Tarrenz, a traditional, wood-panelled Austrian chalet with spacious rooms and views of snow-capped mountain peaks.
The route from Austria to Italy was exhilarating, taking us right into the heart of the Alps, passing pretty villages, lakes and bright green hills dotted with log cabins.
Our Italian stop was Modena, the home of Ferrari – and Lambrusco. A grand city, made a Unesco world heritage site in 1997, don’t miss the Piazza Grande or the Duomo (cathedral). On the fourth Saturday and Sunday of each month, the Piazza Grande hosts Modena’s famous antiques market with wares ranging from 18th century furniture to 1980s Italo disco vinyl.
Modena is also home to Osteria Francescana, celebrating the produce of Emilia Romagna in a contemporary fashion from a back street of the city. It’s booked up months in advance, so make your reservations at the same time as planning your trip.
You could also visit the Montenari family at Opera 02 vineyard in the hills of Modena. The estate includes five hectares of vines, as well as a bar, restaurant, spa and hotel with eight suites. For just eight euros a head, you can taste nine very generous samples of the vineyard’s wine – and try many variations of balsamic vinegar.
After (reluctantly) leaving Modena, we set off on our two-day drive to Spain, looking out for Autogrill service stations on the Italian leg of the route, where you can pick up reasonably priced regional produce.
After an uneventful stop in a chalet just outside Cannes, we arrived in Barcelona.
Our home for the next two weeks was a log cabin in the pine forests outside the city, near the small town of Begues: the accommodation is so off the beaten track it doesn’t have its own address – we had to find it from map coordinates.
A renovated outbuilding with its own pool on the outskirts of family owned land, I fell in love with our little log cabin on first sight. It is kitted-out with a combi-oven (no hob), a power shower, one double bedroom and a sofa that doubles as a single bed. The cabin’s pool has idyllic views of the pine forests and coasts below and there are beautiful sandy beaches within a 30 minute drive: tourist-friendly Sitges has a long stretch of beach and a smaller cove, quieter Casteldefells boasts long stretches of white sand and Barcelona offers lively beaches with sea-front bars and restaurants. Just one word of warning: while the area is very dog-friendly in general, they aren’t allowed on any of the beaches during the summer months.
The cabin is a perfect base for serious cyclists. It lies halfway up a steep, winding, road full of hairpin bends – great for future Tour de France winners (but not for the faint hearted). If you’re willing to take the risk, you can hire cycles from Bike Rental Barcelona or Stiges Bike.
The nearest train stations are Gava and Casteldefells where you can safely leave your car overnight and sample cava and Rioja in the bars of Barcelona (20 minutes north) and Sitges (20 minutes south). You can reach many other towns on the high-speed train lines: my daughter and her Spanish friends enjoyed a day at PortAventura on the Costa Dorada for just 40 Euros including train travel and entry.
If you want to stay off the tourist trail during your stay, Hi This Is Barcelona… provides offbeat private tours of Barcelona’s nooks and crannies. We ventured into the city two or three times, but couldn’t wait to get back to the tranquility of our temporary home.
The cabin is a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life, and I can’t wait to return.
For availability of the cabin, contact the owner directly on (+34) 655150974 (it will help if you speak Catalan or Spanish). Prices start from around 75 Euros per night in high season.
Words: Juliet Shaw for Feet on the Ground
Images: Juliet Shaw/as credited/Turisme de Sitges