Monday, 16 April 2018

Child Friendly Holiday Review: Eurocamp at Camping Internacional de Calonge, Costa Brava, Spain

(If you want to read about the campsite and wish to avoid an account of our family's tedious medical history, please scroll down until you see flags...)

It seems that whenever we book a holiday, a member of our family decides to have a disaster just before we go away. Sometimes it's our daughter - good old vomiting bugs and flu viruses really know how to pick their moments to strike a young child. Often, it's our cat. He crushed the end of his tail in a freak accident the day before a holiday to Northumberland. We later had to have said tail amputated three days before my cousin's wedding. And last year he needed bladder surgery six days before our Eurocamp trip to the South of France which meant me calling in serious favours from my dad to help nurse him back to health. Last August, I got told I had type 1 diabetes the day before we were supposed to go to Holland, which thankfully proved to be a false alarm but (owing to uncertainty and awkwardly timed flights) resulted in the other half of our intended house swap having to cancel and host us instead.

This year, it was my husband's turn. He had a known history of gallstones, having had a horrid attack in the summer of 2015, but since then they had left him alone. However, a day of overindulgence on my birthday a month ago saw him readmitted into A&E at midnight in excruciating pain and vomiting uncontrollably. This time the hospital kept him in and after a scan decided he needed immediate surgery. They told us he wouldn't be able to fly for a while and to expect to have to cancel our upcoming holiday, with Eurocamp to the Costa Brava. "Never mind", we thought, "At least this is going to fix the problem once and for all, and insurance will refund us." Even though we can't afford Eurocamp's summer holiday prices (I say this every year, but they remain astronomical), we knew at some point in the future we would make it to Spain.

However, keyhole surgery is a miraculous thing. After a weekend of severe discomfort (and no painkillers supplied by the hospital), and ten days of post-anaesthetic exhaustion, things began to improve rapidly. The wounds healed and the stitches came out. And as we hadn't got round to actually cancelling, we suddenly realised a week before we were due to leave that the man was going to be well enough to travel after all. A GP gave him her blessing and all looked good.

Only then snow was forecast for the early morning of our Good Friday departure from Leeds Bradford. And Catalonia started rioting. And our daughter started complaining of a sore throat. It seemed that the challenges to our trip weren't over yet.

But nonetheless, we rose at 4.30am to get to the airport for our 8.25am flight to Girona. Leeds Bradford was busy with queuing bank holiday travellers, mostly in Boots (but at least there is now a Boots) and it was pouring with rain, although thankfully the snow held off for another couple of days. Our flight was late leaving as the airport didn't have enough ground staff to deliver a wheelchair for an incoming passenger to disembark. But this meant we were spared Ryanair's punctuality fanfare and shortly after noon local time, we touched down at Girona Costa Brava airport in glorious sunshine. We could hardly believe it. "We made it! We actually made it!" I shrieked with delight as the plane hurtled to a stop.

It took a while to pick up our hire car as Sixt's office was located away from the main terminal and required a minibus transfer. The staff were then in no rush to hand over our keys, but at least one of their team brought out a basket of balloons to entertain the kids while we were waiting. We also befriended a family who by chance were going to the same campsite. We ended up drinking sangria with them on the beach at Platja d'Aro a couple of days later. But when we eventually got going, there was an accident en route on the C-65 which caused a significant tailback. So the journey to the campsite was far longer than the half an hour it should have taken.

And by the time we arrived, we desperately needed some lunch. The campsite website had implied that not much would be open this early in the season, so we drove on into St Antoni de Calonge to try and find somewhere to eat. We ended up in the restaurant attached to a Carrefour supermarket (unlike many others, open on the bank holiday) so we thought we could grab some food quickly and then stock up with some essential supplies before checking into the campsite. Only the restaurant was the slowest one on earth. My Spanish is poor (it gets me beer), and my Catalan even poorer (I know the word for "sock" from a phonetics class in 1995), so it was hard to figure out the menu or what was going on, and we just had to sit and wait. Which is particularly hard when you are with a seven year old who has been awake since before dawn. Eventually they brought us some bread, and after I had wolfed this down I went off and did the supermarket shopping so we weren't delayed any further. By the time I got back to the restaurant they were finally bringing out our meals, but the food was lukewarm and barely edible. We ate enough to stem our hunger and left as fast as we could.

The flags! On with the holiday review...

Soon we were back at the campsite, and annoyingly the restaurant, bar and supermarket were all open after all, so we could have spared ourselves a lot of hassle and a disappointing meal. Before we knew it our car was registered on the numberplate recognition system, our passports had been scanned at reception and we had been sent up to Eurocamp. A lovely courier by the name of Matt was waiting to meet us while some of his colleagues were unpacking brand-new barbecues. It was only the second day of the season for them. Matt didn't mind that by this point I was tired, grumpy, still hungry and therefore scatty, meaning I managed to mislay our accommodation voucher somewhere in the five metres between our car and his office. He had worked at the campsite before so knew his way round and showed us the route to drive up to our mobile home, while he took a shortcut up one of the many staircases.

Yes, up. Yes, staircases. There is no denying that Internacional de Calonge is on the side of a very steep hill. Our car certainly grumbled about this, as did our legs initially, but the plus side is that we were rewarded by the most wonderful sea view from our caravan, which made every step of the journey worthwhile. For the first time ever, it seemed we had the mobile home featured in the brochure. We had lucked out at last - and all for a bargain £300 for the week.

Our row of Avants
Sea view from the deck

We stayed in an Avant before at Bella Italia on Lake Garda, and this one was just as pleasing. It was a three-bedroom model, which gave us extra storage and a couple of spare pillows. We were glad of the duvets and the proper heating that the Avant offers - with Easter being so early, it was still cool at night and as we travelled hand luggage only, we hadn't brought piles of warm clothes with us. We still sat outside every evening despite the sea breezes: I felt like we had been cooped up for months in York because - well, we had. We slowly worked our way through a bottle of Licor 43, a tipple I discovered on a walking holiday in Andalucia years ago and discovered some more in various tapas bars around London. It's like liquid vanilla ice cream and tastes so unbelievably good. There were dramatic moonrises the first two nights which I failed to photograph properly, the end result as blurry as my vision.

Our Avant
Useless blurry moonrise photo
But the accommodation was not without its issues. We had only been supplied with sheets rather than duvet covers, and the next morning the pilot light on the boiler kept going out, making showering if not technically impossible then certainly freezing cold. Thankfully a message scribbled on the pad in Eurocamp reception brought Matt to the rescue - he replaced our gas bottle and fetched the correct bedding packs. But really, as we were the first guests of the year, could gas levels not have been checked? There were also a few items missing from the kitchen - a large serving bowl, scissors and a couple of cereal bowls. Surely a full inventory and restock should have been done at the start of the season? We managed without as we were only three, but next door to us was a family of eight who would have struggled with the missing crockery.

Land train
The campsite was booked out over the Easter weekend so had laid on a few activities, which was a bonus as we hadn't expected any entertainment. The little land train was running, trundling campers down to the bridge leading over to the beach. There were were kids' club sessions, including an egg hunt all over the campsite, and a couple of mini discos in the evening. As our daughter still hasn't perfected her Europop moves, she preferred hanging out by the vending machines looking at jelly brains in nets with the neighbours' kids. (Another lucky thing was that we were surrounded by families with daughters a similar age, meaning she had playmates on tap, which was brilliant. It's something you can never guarantee or dare hope for.) On the Saturday, the disco ended with a surprise feast. The kids were all lined up and taken off to receive a plate of Nutella sandwiches, Kinder Surprises, other chocolate eggs, and to complete the chocolate fiesta, random piles of broken  chocolate. All for free, and all meaning that none of them were able to go to bed any time soon, being off their faces on sugar. So time for the grown-ups to benefit from my one Spanish phrase and get a couple of beers in...

The kids' club was fine, but I don't think our daughter would have enjoyed it if the neighbours' kids hadn't gone along too. It was also a bit lax, as it let our daughter and a friend leave without an adult collecting them. They suddenly appeared back at our caravan, while my husband had gone to pick them up taking a different route down. No harm done, but if I had gone with him rather than staying behind, it could have had complications. The roads are steep and windy and cars aren't always easy to spot. Likewise children aren't easy to spot from a car.

The supermarket was fine for basics, with the usual campsite mark-up. We were very grateful to have a hire car so we could stock up more cheaply, and it also meant we saved money by not needing to eat out as much. (Though it was a shame that we didn't manage a meal on the campsite restaurant as it did look very nice indeed.) Internacional de Calonge is listed by Eurocamp as a "car optional" site, but I don't think it is at this time of year - the local bus services weren't all quite up and running, the campsite was not yet organising any excursions, and transfers from the airports only take you as far as the larger nearby towns, though taxis would cover the rest. However, if you want a lazy time just on the campsite and the beach, it really is a lovely place to hang out. The beaches are beautiful, and quiet at this time of year. There are a series of sandy coves you can walk between, via tunnels, cliff paths, bridges and steps (although the path in one direction has - at the time of writing - collapsed into the sea). The sea is quite wild as it crashes against the numerous rocks, but it is the most stunning shade of turquoise, and so clear. There was a heady scent of honeysuckle at the top of the steps down to the beach.

Beach near the campsite

The sea was unfortunately colder than the unheated campsite pools, which was saying something. But we hadn't really been expecting to swim. Some English guests braved the pools most days - but never for very long. The Spanish stayed wrapped up in their coats - it probably felt like Northumberland in January to them. For us the Costa Brava felt blissfully warm after our long Siberian winter. It was a delight to sense the sun on our faces as we read about all the rain falling at home.

My husband was still recuperating to some extent, so we kept our excursions fairly local. Some families did go as far as Barcelona, but we decided, having spent a week there a few years ago, to leave that this time, as a daytrip just sounded too exhausting. There is just too much to see to fit into a few hours, and there didn't seem to be an easy or cheap way to get there. Trains are expensive - and there was no station nearby. And driving into a big city on four-lane highways is not really our thing.

Barcelona in 2009






We had also visited Girona before so again didn't return, not being able to recall too many things that would interest a young child, gorgeous though the city is - and a definite must-see if you have never been.

Girona in 2009

We did make it to Figueres, to see the stupendous Salvador Dali museum, which didn't disappoint. Our daughter usually has bad form in world-class art galleries, but this one she loved, as it is so utterly bonkers. It wasn't too crowded either. The drive there from the campsite was straightforward on quiet roads, although finding a car park was as stressful as ever, even though there turned out to be one very handily placed for the museums. We whiled away a couple of hours before seeking out tapas in the main square at the aptly but groanworthily named "Dali-catessen".

























On the way back we stopped at Empuries, a Greek and Roman archeological site overlooking the sea at the lower end of the Bay of Roses. It's a huge place - and they have barely excavated a quarter of what is there. We were a bit tired to do it justice, but it does offer an excellent audio tour, including a special one for children. There are some incredible mosaics to see, as well as a hypocaust and the remains of several houses, shops, stores, statues and and a (partially reconstructed) Roman forum.

Empuries and the Bay of Roses

Mosaic floors

Reconstructed Roman forum

The two nearest towns to the campsite are Palamos and Platja d'Aro. Both are big resorts, and we didn't spend long in either, mostly just passing through. But Platja d'Aro had an older quarter (Castell d'Aro) inland, with a castle, church, art gallery and museum, but all were closed for siesta at the time we chose to visit. The doll museum mentioned by Eurocamp in its area guide appears to have shut down altogether. But there were flowers and colourful tiles brightening up the houses, and trees saturated with lemons. Sant Feliu de Guixols, the next town down from Platja d'Aro, was also pleasant with a few grand edifices from times gone by along the seafront.

Platja d'Aro
View of Palamos from the campsite
Castell d'Aro

Sundial



Citrus
St Feliu de Guixols
We also went to two beautiful medieval hill towns - Pals and Begur, which afforded fabulous views of the coast and distant snow-capped Pyrenees, and had several nice restaurants, quirky shops and galleries.

Pals


Pyrenees

Bay of Roses

Begur castle

One afternoon we went to the botanical gardens at Cap Roig. It wasn't far from the campsite, but only as the crow flies. To drive there took a rather circuitous route via Palafrugell. But the gardens were quite wonderful. Steep again, but with views to die for (though our teenage seven year old declared them "boring" as "it's just sea" while rolling her eyes and unable to be persuaded to walk down to the rather fine-looking play area). The gardens didn't have many flowers in bloom yet, but there were plenty of palm trees and cacti, and orange and yellow butterflies flitting around us. The castle in the grounds was undergoing renovation so I don't know what there is to see inside.









These were certainly interesting times in Catalonia - with the independence referendum having been declared illegal by the government in Madrid and several key politicians recently imprisoned, there were yellow ribbons everywhere, attached to trees and buildings, to show the population's solidarity with their state government. Villages declared themselves to be "part of the independent republic of Catalonia" and "Som republica" was emblazoned across nearly every road bridge. I don't know how they will resolve this difficult situation but it's not hard to see why the Catalan people are so fiercely proud of this beautiful region.

"Free political prisoners"


The end of the holiday was tough as I had foolishly booked us on the 6.40am flight from Girona to Leeds Bradford. Our daughter's sore throat had turned into a manky cough which made it hard for her to sleep and consequently very tired. So getting up at 3am with barely a minute's rest beforehand was frankly not great. We also had to leave the car outside the campsite as the security barriers are locked between midnight and 7am, which was a complication we could have done without, as we then had to carry our luggage down the mountain. We had been advised not to leave anything in the car as one had been broken into recently - although there was actually a night guard in sight of where we left the vehicle. Anyway, the long plod downhill in the dark with our suitcases was another reason to be glad we had travelled light. It was surprisingly foggy driving back to Girona, and hard to navigate our way round the airport as a result. We could barely see the car hire office. It wasn't open that early anyway, so we then had to walk to the terminal as there was no shuttle in operation. We will know for next time and get a later flight if possible.

For we are confident there will be a next time. We loved the campsite, even if it was quieter than some we have been to in recent years, simply for the views and peaceful atmosphere. It may of course be a different story in the height of summer when all the tent pitches are open and all the motorhomes descend. It must be a nightmare manoeuvring large caravans around the terraces and slopes. But for being busier there would be more in the way of entertainment and it would be easier to entertain older children. Our daughter is suddenly at an age where she is more particular about play areas, and the ones at Internacional were definitely aimed at younger kids. However, if she was at the pirate ship with the girls next door then all was well. In summer the catering outlet would be open up there too and that would make it feel like more was happening. It was a shame that you couldn't really use the pools (one advantage of holidaying in France over Spain or Italy is that they heat outdoor pools so you can use them comfortably(ish) all season). And the pools weren't anything like as spectacular as the complexes you get at the larger campsites. That said, there is a big aquapark with slides just a couple of miles up the road, though this doesn't open until June. The other sports facilities were fine, but there was only one of each sort of pitch/court so they would easily get full, and Eurocamp had little in the way of equipment to loan out (though you could also rent tennis racquets etc from the main campsite reception). Eurocamp were also rather void of any games or beach toys to borrow - last year the campsite we visited in France had loads, which is helpful when you have flown and can't take a car full of luggage. Of course it may just be that everything had already been borrowed by the time we got there, but nothing appeared back later in the week when most people had moved on.

We were glad to have booked the Avant as they had by far the best location on the whole campsite - the cheaper Eurocamp accommodation was not nearly as well situated and the mobile homes seemed quite close together. They had no view to speak of, only of other caravans.

Our last trip to the beach
The Costa Brava is stunning, and we would love to see more of it. But for now we are so glad that we got to go on our main holiday of the year after all, and once we had recovered from the early start on the final day, we all felt much better and refreshed from our travels. After such a long winter and delay to spring, I fear I may have gone mad stuck in York watching the torrential rain drown our city over Easter. The floods rose and the Ouse threatened our park and street once again. The only saving grace to our return was that the city's daffodils were finally in bloom.