Our D.I.Y. driving tour to Barcelona and a glimpse of life in medieval times in the south of France
By Ginger Warder
As Shakespeare once said “what’s past is prologue” and my recent driving tour of Spain and France was an illustration of that point.
From a current struggle in Catalonia for cultural and regional independence to a centuries-old fortress that served as a refuge for independent religious thinkers, our D.I.Y. driving tour made me reflect on the ongoing conflicts that arise from diverse groups of human beings trying to live together under a centralized government.
And as I always do, I came home knowing that we are all more alike than different.
I’m a proponent of “slow travel”: getting off the tour bus, ditching the minute-by-minute itinerary and living like a local whenever possible. It’s more about quality and spontaneity than about seeing the classic sights…it’s about shopping at the local markets or eating at small local restaurants, stopping on a whim for a picnic or taking a stroll through a magnificent garden or quaint village, and most of all, about getting to know the locals wherever you are.
This trip was full of surprises, from excellent budget hotels and rockin’ rest stops to funky thrift shops and thrilling views of the countryside from a 12>th-century guard tower in the historic chateau we rented for a week.
Viva Catalunya or Viva Spain?
The first thing I noticed about Barcelona was the incredible architecture. The second thing I noticed was that every building was covered in banners and flags hanging from the ornate balconies.
Some displayed the flag of Spain, while others bore banners that simply said “Sí “, indicating support for independence.
Catalonia is at a major crossroads, and we were there for a firsthand look at history in the making.
Our taxi driver from the airport was against independence, but others we spoke with offered a different point of view. One local we chatted with over an Estrella beer was pro-independence: his concerns were the preservation of the Catalan language and culture. He and his friend had rescued elderly residents from the polls on the day Catalonians voted for the independence referendum and were attacked by Spain’s police.
It’s a complicated issue, compounded by the fact that Spain is in dire straits financially and Catalonia is the richest region in the country. Although Spain took over the regional government, deposed the president—now in exile evading arrest—the elections forced by Spain resulted once again in a Parliament that’s pro-independence, so the story continues.
Barcelona High Points: Literally!
My friend Ricky and I love to “go vertical”—cable cars, funiculars, rooftop decks—to get a birds-eye view of our destination.
To satisfy our compulsion, and in homage to the locations of Dan Brown’s thriller, Origin, we set out for the most popular tourist attraction in Barcelona, Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia.
What began in 1882 is still under construction today, but the views from the towers are amazing, as is the ornate Basilica. Warning…though you ride up in an elevator, visitors have to walk down the narrow, curving stone stairs and anyone with a fear of heights or vertigo should steer clear.
Also, note that you must make advance reservations online as the tower tours are limited and sell out daily.
Another high point (double entendre intended!) was Montjuïc, overlooking the harbor on the southwest side of the city. The hilltop park—the site of the 1992 Olympic games— is home to a 17th-century castle, several museums, gorgeous gardens, and a performing arts center, but the cable car ride itself (about $16 USD) is worth the trip.
For another fun vertical excursion, we took the funicular to Mount Tibidabo. Barcelona was spread below us and you could see all the way to the port.
We were surprised to find a full-fledged amusement park atop the mountain, which is a popular attraction for local young families, and enjoyed dinner overlooking the twinkling lights of the city.
A Road Trip to the Past
We picked up a rental car at the airport and headed out of Barcelona toward Narbonne, France. The A-9 is an excellent highway, and although it is a toll road (expect to spend about 20 euros), it’s by far the fastest route. We discovered a great rest area with a Moveny—Spain’s version of the fabulous Swiss Movenpick—and had a satisfying lunch at the buffet filled with hot and cold selections.
Our destination was a 12th-century chateau at the foot of the Black Mountain, halfway between Narbonne and Beziers.
One of the fortified castles where the Cathars took refuge during Pope Innocent’s Albigensian Crusade in the early 1200s, Chateau D’Agel has been in the Ecal family since 1764.
If you think renting your own castle in the south of France is only for the glitterati, think again. You don’t have to spend a fortune to live the high life in your own luxurious 12>th-century chateau. For less than half of the cost of a guided motor coach tour through this region—or a nightly rate comparable to a Best Western or Marriott—you can wander at will in your own rental car and live like a king.
In fact, a week in the historic Chateau D’Agel—which sleeps 14 adults comfortably—is less than the cost of a room for two adults at Disney World for the same period of time.
Each of us had our own antique-laden suite with a private, modern bathroom.
Although the stone floors and guard towers screamed ancient history, we were not without modern amenities.
The castle’s gourmet kitchen, a private wine cellar stocked with its own excellent reds, incredible terrace on which to enjoy those wines, private pool, cable television, Wi-Fi and a library with a billiard table, stereo system and fireplace big enough to roast an ox were equivalent to that of a five-star hotel. But, even better, we didn’t have to share them with anyone else.
The village of Bize-Minervois—just a couple of miles from the chateau—boasts a good bakery where we picked up hot-from-the-oven croissants in the morning, a few good local restaurants and a secondhand shop (known as a brocante), where we found some unique treasures.
There are several visit-worthy places within easy driving distance so we did day trips to the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, visited the cathedral at Narbonne, did some shopping in Beziers, and bought some tasty souvenirs at the local olive co-op, L’Oulibo.
We spent our evenings on the chateau’s terrace, enjoying the excellent red wines from our private wine cellar located off the foyer.
Tour by the Owners
But perhaps the most memorable experience was the private tour of our chateau with the owners, Martine Ecal-Besse and her husband, Jean-Marie.
They took us into both guard towers, although I wimped out on climbing the ladders in the oldest tower to see the view. My friends Ricky and Mark, however, followed Jean-Marie up the wooden ladders and took in the view of the surrounding valley as those guards in the Cathar days must have seen it.
Jean-Marie, quite the historian, also showed us some documents dating back to those times, as well as an ancestor’s diary and other artifacts that he plans to put in a library at the chateau.
The castle also has murder holes—small square holes in the wall where those under siege could attack from above—and there’s even a siege tunnel, although that’s no longer safe for visitors.
For travelers who love nightlife and a vibrant urban environment, Barcelona is a great choice. For adult group getaways or large families, the slower pace at the Chateau D’Agel offers an inside look at the rich history of this part of southern France and a chance to live like a local in an authentic castle.
Or do as we did, and try them both!
Hotel Dante, Barcelona