Sunday, 27 May 2012

Travelling with a baby in Spain: the boring logistics post

Here's an Internet breadcrumb, a collection of random thoughts, recommendations and experiences, for others thinking about travelling with a baby in Spain.

Car Seat

We took our Britax Boulevard 70 car seat, which was great to have on the plane and in the car.  Having seen the Avis hire car seats available I know it was the right decision.  The downside was that it didn't fit through hardly any of the airport security X-ray machines, which caused delays and minor freakouts by airport security drones.  They eventually all let it through, with varying levels of inspection.

Some cabs we took didn't have locking seat belts, but most did, and some even had LATCH anchors for the seat.

We used the Britax 'car seat travel cart' to get baby and seat through the airport and checked the stroller in its stroller bag.  Our stroller bag is huge so we also snuck the travel cot in there, saving us paying for an extra piece (stroller is checked for free).

This worked pretty well, the cart easily fits in overhead bins, or in front of the baby's seat. We had the option to check the stroller at the gate - I'm not sure if this would have given any better odds for having your stroller returned undamaged, but it didn't seem like it was worth the hassle.

Booking the baby a seat on the plane is expensive but you get the folowing benefits: they can sleep on their own (covered by a cloth to remove distractions), you get an extra bag allowance, and they are strapped in securely for turbulence.

The design of airplane seat belts (meet in the middle) means the buckle sat at our daughter's back, which was probably a little uncomfortable for her.  Not sure if there is anything you can do about this - ask for a seat belt extension?

We flew with Spanish airline Vueling twice, and both times the hosties freaked out about the car seat.  We didn't see any other kids on those flights, and I suspect that Spanish people don't take their car seats on the plane.  It barely fit in the seat due to their ridiculous lack of leg room.

Car Hire

We hired through Avis, which worked out fine.  We had a Seat Altera for the first half of the trip.  It was perfect to fit 2 adults, a baby, 3 suitcases, an umbrella stroller, baby bjorn travel cot (highly recommend), and two small backpacks.  We put the stroller on the back seat and the bags in the boot, which were covered by the shelf thingy so it wasn't obvious to thieves your car was full of stuff.

For the second half of the trip we had a Nissan Qashqai, which appeared to be a larger car, but actually had less room in the boot.  We still fit everything in the same way, but it was more squishy.

For whatever reason it appears that all hire cars in Spain are manual (stick for Americans) Diesels.  Diesel fuel is available everywhere.

We picked up quite a few scratches from other cars dinging us in the tiny European car parks, but Avis didn't charge us for them.


Staying cool in the heat

We were unlucky enough to hit a heatwave.  I'd recommend having a little spray bottle for the baby, and a battery operated or person-powered fan.  If you can get a battery operated fan that clips onto the stroller that would be perfect.

Hotels

I don't think there is a single hotel in Spain that has carpet.  This was a problem for our daughter who was pulling up and learning to walk - lots of face planting onto hard tiles or floorboards.  Not sure there is too much you can do about this.

We booked almost every hotel at the last minute (the day before, or the day of) through booking.com.  Great range of hotels, real reviews, easy to use, nothing but good experience.  If you are staying more than 3 days I'd definitely consider getting an apartment through vrbo.com, for the convenience of kitchens, washing machines, microwaves etc.

Doing laundry was surprisingly difficult and expensive.  Most hotel laundry services were ridiculously expensive - like 3 Euro for a pair of socks, which is more than I paid for the socks in the first place.  Public laundries (lavanderia's) were few and far between.  We ended up finding a dry cleaner (tintoreria) that also washed in water, and a big load cost us 15 Euro.

Washing bottles

We brought a sea to summit camp sink to wash bottles in.  We planned to use it when the hotel sinks were gross, but it actually turned out to be essential for the couple of fancy places we stayed that had really modern shallow sinks.  Quite a few hotels seemed to have temperature limiters on their sink hot water so that you could only get lukewarm water in the sink no matter how long you ran it on hot.  Fortunately the showers didn't seem to be limited, so we used the shower head to fill the portable sink with hot water.  Highly recommend.

We also had the microwave steam sterilizer bags, which we gave to hotel staff to put in the kitchen microwave on a number of occasions.  We didn't stay in many hotels that had microwaves in the room.


Formula and Nappies

We were in Spain for 3 weeks, so we couldn't carry enough formula or nappies, although we came pretty close.  We ended up buying the 'Hero' Spanish formula, as well as the Nestle version - our daughter was fine with drinking both (she has Similac at home).  We bought the Dodot active nappies, and despite having had problems with different brands giving her a rash in the past, these were fine.  They seemed a little less absorbent than her regular pampers sensitive ones.


Wifi

You can get free wifi internet access in basically every hotel, even in tiny villages in the middle of nowhere.

Mobile phone SIM for voice and data

We weren't sure we were going to be able to get internet access everywhere (turns out you can, as above), so a prepaid SIM with data and voice seemed like a good option.  We tried vodafone, but couldn't get decent data and voice - their only good data plan was for an 'ipad' SIM that didn't include voice.  We got the voice SIM and kept the data turned off except for a couple of critical moments, because it was hellish expensive.

Having a spanish number was handy to put on car, hotel, and taxi bookings, but we didn't end up making many actual phone calls.  It was handy to be able to call each other for free.  I'd probably do the same again - it was 10 Euros per SIM.


GPS Nav

We had a TomTom GPS, which was essential for getting around, but the maps, despite being purchased the week before, were definitely inaccurate in a number of ways.  Spain seems to have renumbered a lot of their highway exits, and many newish-looking roads didn't exist on the map.  Still it was good enough to get us around without too much drama.

Lonely Planet on the Kindle and Android phone

I wasn't sure how well a purely electronic version of LP was going to work, but we gave it a go, and I think I would do it again, maybe.  Lots of suckiness, but not having to carry the book is a massive plus.  Here's my full list of pros and cons:

  • + We could read it simultaneously on our kindles, phones, and on the laptop (when internet connected) for the cost of one copy
  • + You look like less of a tourist messing with your phone than having a guidebook out
  • + You can make notes and bookmarks that sync across all devices when they Internet-connect
  • + You only need to carry your phone when out and about, instead of a 0.5 kg giant book
  • + Nice tie-in with google maps, with links from the text articles.  However, it is only useful if you have cheap mobile data or plan ahead and pre-cache maps data (requires a maps lab plugin).
  • - All the maps are pretty much useless.  They look like shit on the kindle.  They are slightly better on the phone in colour and you can zoom in, but the images are really low quality.  LP has tried to address this by breaking each map into quarters and providing those as separate, more zoomed-in images, but paging through these chopped up maps is really annoying and difficult to use.  They need to provide each one in high-res so it is zoomable - I suspect this is a kindle app limitation.
  • - Search sucks (and doesn't even exist in the cloud reader).  It is ridiculously slow (maybe 5 minutes?) to get a result on the phone or the kindle.  It would be very easy and effective to build an index and distribute it with the book: when I search for 'Museo del Prado' or 'Toledo', I should be taken to the relevant section immediately.  Instead, I get every mention of Toledo in the entire book, and have to hunt through the results to find the one that points to the section.  I suspect this is a kindle limitation.
  • - Organisation is terrible.  It is basically the same as the paper book, which works very poorly in this format.  On my phone to get to Park Guell it takes 75 clicks: settings, go to, table of contents, on the road, next, barcelona, sights, then scrolling through the next 68 pages.  That's appalling for such a well-known landmark and major book section.
  • - There are no links to any of the activities in the city itinerary summaries (e.g. 'Barcelona in two days').  You need to dig through each Barcelona neighbourhood (or wait ages for search) to find the specific activity.  Rinse and repeat for each one.
  • - Bookmarks and notes are mostly useless once you have more than a couple.  They are ordered by page number rather than the order in which you bookmarked them, which is dumb, you probably want the thing you just bookmarked, not the one you bookmarked a week ago.  So you end up hunting through and reading the summary for all of the bookmarks.


Friday, 25 May 2012

Barcelona

Barcelona is a fantastic city, and now places amongst my favourite cities in the world.  Really interesting architecture, great beaches, heaps of bars and restaurants, cool vibe.  The only downside is the ridiculous number of tourists - the only other place I've seen such huge numbers of tourists in one place is in Times Square.  Barcelona has at least five places that were jam packed with tourists on the random weekdays we were there: Sagrada Familia, La Rambla, the beaches, Park Güell, and Montserrat.

Montserrat: "I totally saw Mary here, lets build a monastery into a giant cliff"


Montserrat basilica: impressive, even for atheists who are sick of churches
Sunset from the terrace of our Barcelona apartment
Sagrada Família: a masterpiece still under construction.  Thank you Mr. Gaudi for building a cathedral that doesn't look like every other one on the planet.


Amazing use of light and tree-like columns by Gaudi

Spiral staircase 10? stories high that was a little intimidating, even for  someone used to hanging from cliffs.  There is a handrail on the left and a drop on the right to the bottom, which is kind of like walking on the edge of one of those seemingly infinite holes in the death star.
Obligatory trip to hospital for Ella.  She had diarrhea for more than 3 days and we were starting to get worried.  Doctor told us to wait it out.  That will be 200€ please.  Turns out San Pau hospital was another Gaudi building, so we counted this as another expensive entry fee :)
Gaudi's La Pedrera 
Chimneys on top of La Pedrera 

Series of outdoor escalators to get to Park Güell from  the Vallcarca metro stop.  I'd definitely recommend going this way up the hill.  It reminded me of the hike up to Coit Tower in San Francisco.
Gaudi's Park Güell gatehouses
Ella on the beach, W hotel in the background

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Parque Natural Montsant, Siurana

My idea of going to the best Spanish climbing destinations really paid off with Montsant. After another gut-wrenching winding drive, we arrived at Balcó del Priorat in La Morera de Montsant, which had a great view and was perfectly placed as a starting point for some great hikes. I could easily have spent a week doing various day hikes from the surrounding villages into the park. It was super windy both days we were in the area, but we used Ella's stroller raincover to make her a little greenhouse while she was in the backpack to keep her out of the wind.


View Larger Map

We hiked up La Grallera, intending to do a circuit, but when we reached the top we were turned back by a seriously strong wind that was ripping over the ridge. We came back down and checked out a cave, and saw a heap of bolted climbs along the face. Didn't see another soul for the few hours we were walking.


Cova de la Grallera 
View of La Morera de Montsant



Not only was there great rocks, but we had unknowingly brought ourselves to a region called Priorat, which is alone with Rioja as a Spanish DOQ wine region. Priorat is known for its strong, tannin-loaded, dark red wines, and also generally as a fancy gastronomy region. We had the best meal of our time in Spain at the hotel (where we were the only guests), accompanied with a deliciously dark red from the winery behind the hotel.



The next day we headed over to spectacular Siurana, another famous climbing destination.


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It was an important Andalusian centre of defence and was the last Muslim enclave in Catalonia to be conquered by the Christians in 1153-54. It is easy to see why - it is perched on top of a cliff and surrounded by a deep gorge that now is host to tons of climbing. I'd love to come back here and climb, it is a magic place. Cute clifftop bars in the village for post-climb drinks, and campgrounds lower-down for cheap accommodation.


Two groups on some short sport climbs with a spectacular view


Sunday, 20 May 2012

Mont Sec, Congost de Mont-rebei, Ermita de la Pertusa

A blog inspired me to add the Congost de Mont-rebei to our Spain travel destinations map.  We ended up only staying one night in the area, so we foolishly set off at 4 pm to squeeze in the hike before sunset at 9 pm.  We didn't realise just how difficult a drive we were in for.

You can approach the Congost (gorge) from Corça, which is 5 hours walking return, or from Alsamora which is 2 hours return.  We opted for the 2 hour version, but we didn't realise we were going to be spending an hour and a half driving over the giant Montsec mountain range through a series of endless gut-churning switchbacks.  I'd definitely recommend driving to Corça and doing the walk from there since you get to see the spectacular Ermita de la Pertusa as well (we ended up going to see it the next day).  Here's the 1.5 hour drive we did:


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Compare that to the 12min drive to Corça:


View Larger Map

On the plus side we got a great view from Mont Sec, which is a very popular paragliding launch point.


The gorge didn't disappoint, it is a spectacular, and well worth the trip.  We basically had it to ourselves since it was late in the day and there was a thunderstorm threatening.  Apparently there is also climbing, caving and canyoning in and around the gorge.  There is a tour company in Àger that offers guides.





Wildflowers in the foreground and the storm in the background that produced torrential rain for our drive back to the hotel

The next day we drove out to Corça and walked to the Ermita de la Pertusa, built in the 11th and 12th centuries.  I just found out there is a via ferrata that climbs the rock face, which looks like it would be a lot of fun.


The Ermita de la Pertusa, a ridiculous place to build a church


We also checked out the Terradets gorge, a super-popular climbing area.  Visually it is not quite as cool as Mont-rebei since it has a dirty great road and power lines through it, but impressive nonetheless.

Terradets gorge

Friday, 18 May 2012

Aragón: Mallos de Riglos

After the blazing heat of Seville, the rolling green hills and cool temperatures of Aragón in the foothills of the Pyrenees seemed magic.  We came for the Mallos de Riglos, but loved the whole area, and could easily have stayed longer.  The 2hr circular hike through the 300m high conglomerate 'mallets' was spectacular, and probably the best thing we did in Spain.









We saw quite a few climbers, maybe 20 different groups. All French. The rock is conglomerate, and looked scarily bad, but I guess with enough traffic the loose chunks will have mostly been pulled out. As this climber says:
We now feel a little more confident climbing on those potatoes encrusted in the walls. The first day I felt like I had to test them all. And indeed some of them sounded hollow or cracked. But they stick to the wall anyway. So after a while you pull on anything that has chalk on it without a second thought.
I was sorely tempted to try and organise a guide and hire some gear to climb here, but it would have left Em at the bottom of the cliff with a baby to entertain, and we had lots of other stuff to see. There is a great climbers bar in the village with maps of all the routes on the walls, they also have some basic rooms to stay in.

Two climbers topping out Mallo Puro, the spike on the front of Mallo Pison.  According to their friends it is 6 pitches at around 6b

We stayed in a fantastic B&B that had some of the best food we ate in Spain and a fantastic view of the Mallos.


View from our patio

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Sevilla: Too f***king hot

We went to Seville in the middle of some unusually hot weather - the average for May was 26°C but we had forecast temperatures of 36°C, 38°C, and 36°C.  To be honest, it pretty much ruined our enjoyment of the city.  It was barely cool enough to go outside even in the evening, on the hottest day it was still about 37°C at 9pm. But we struggled on anyway. Ella was surprisingly OK with the heat and we made sure she was well hydrated, sunscreened, and shaded as much as possible.

So, what to see? Surprisingly there is an Alcázar and a Catedral. But first, some drinks.

View of the Cathedral from a terrace bar in Hotel doña Maria


Tomb of Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) inside the Cathedral - some debate as to whether all of him ended up in here... 
Alcazar - Seville's answer to the Alhambra.  Not quite as grand, but still very beautiful


I jumped in this fountain at Plaza de España with a bunch of other tourists to cool off
Ella aircon: a wet dress and a Dad-powered fan in Parque de Maria Luisa
This is at 4pm, we saw this sign display 40°C one day.