Vilanova i la Geltrú is a large town about a 45 minute drive (or short train journey) south-west from Barcelona. It is an ordinary Spanish town that we had never even heard of until this trip, but it actually makes a great holiday destination and an ideal base from which to explore Barcelona and some of the Costa Durada coast.
Vilanova is a working town with a friendly and relaxed pace. It has a great beach and is full of history and interesting architecture, but you’ll almost certainly never find it on one of those lists of the “Top holiday destinations you must visit in Spain” or some suchlike. This means that you’ll be more likely to hear Spanish voices next to you in the café or on the beach and you won’t have to jostle with thousands of fellow tourists to get somewhere to sit. You will also have a more authentically Spanish experience here than you would in one of the more touristy coastal towns for which Spain is now infamous.
We spent two stints in Vilanova – firstly in December and again recently when we met up with Andy’s sister and her husband for a week or so before catching the ferry to Italy.
One of the loveliest features of the town is that it has a wide open, pedestrianised street running right through its centre, covering about a mile all the way from the seafront to the Parish Church of Sant Antoni Abat in the heart of the town. This gracious esplanade (called the Rambla de la Pau, changing its name to the Rambla Principal about half way up) is lined with shops and pavement cafés and it is a delightful place to stroll at any time of the day or night.
At the harbour end of the Rambla is a monument to Francesc Macià, the first President of Catalonia and son of Vilanova. The monument was designed by Josep Maria Subirachs, who also designed the Passion Facade at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. From here the Rambla passes under the railway line and then continues up into town and if you look carefully between the shops and cafés you can see some elegant, modernist style houses dating from the mid-19th century. Vilanova has many such homes, built by citizens who travelled to Latin America to make their wealth and then returned to Catalonia. Here they were known as ‘Indianos’ or ‘Americanos’.
About two thirds of the way up, just off to the right of the Rambla is the delightful Plaça de la Vila. This neoclassical, arched square was built in the 19th century, financed largely by Josep Thomàs Ventosa, one of the Americanos who made his fortune in Cuba, where he was mayor of the town of Matanzas. He financed and built many social buildings in both Matanzas and Vilanova and there is a monument with a bronze statue of him in the centre of the square. An exact replica also stands in Matanzas, where both of the statues were forged.
There are a few cafes in the square and it is a lovely place to soak up the atmosphere and watch the children scooting and running around the monument (ours included!). I particularly liked the beautiful black and white paving stones.
At the top of the Rambla is the simple and bright Parish Church of Sant Antoni Abat, behind which is a lovely little bell tower. From certain angles you can see that it is leaning.
The beach and harbour
The beaches at Vilanova are made of the nicest kind of sand – divinely soft and fine (Emma calls it ‘sugar sand’) – and they slope gently into the sea, making them ideal for paddling and swimming, although the sea was way too cold during our stay to even contemplate getting in more than knee high. They were clean too, without much in the way of seaweed or debris along the waterline.
There is a lovely palm-tree-lined promenade along the front and then set back from this are plenty of restaurants and cafés. Mid-way along, sitting out on a promontory, is a striking and unusual sculpture by Vilanovan artist Oscar Estruga that is one of the symbols of the town. The sculpture shows a woman inside the body of a cow and it is an interpretation of the legend of Pasifae. In Greek mythology, Pasifae was the daughter of Helios and mother of the Minotaur (a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man). Poseidon made Pasifae fall deeply in love with a white bull to punish her husband, Minos, for lying to him. Pasifae apparently had a craftsman make a hollow wooden cow that she climbed inside in order to mate with the bull.
Down at the harbour, hundreds of small boats are moored in neat little rows, whilst further along you can watch the fishermen land their catch, throwing ice over trays of glistening fish, a reminder that this is still a working town. Then alongside the harbour office there were old men mending tangles of brightly coloured fishing nets. These were spread out on the ground like great, long snakes, or piled up at the side awaiting their turn. The men sat on battered office chairs, listening to old transistor radios, the nets held aloft on wooden trestles. To me their task seemed totally daunting.
Along the front, between the beach and the promenade, there is a playground with a pirate ship and a miniature train and in the summer a tourist train wends its way from the shoreline up into the town and back.
Just along the coast from Vilanova (on the way to Barcelona) is the lovely town of Sitges. This is better known as a holiday destination than Vilanova and it has a large international population, mainly from the Netherlands, the UK. France and Scandinavia. It also has a large gay population and is host to a huge gay pride festival every June. In fact, Sitges is known as the ‘village of festivals’ as they have so many events going on there during the year.
Like many small Spanish towns, Sitges has a quaint old town with narrow streets. It also has some beautiful beaches, including one for nudists. We had a surreal experience on our visit to Sitges as we sat in the sun eating our sandwiches listening to a busker play a Spanish guitar version of “Silent Night” for the patrons of a nearby café. It was December, but somehow it seemed so incongruous!
The Devil’s Bridge
South of Vilanova, on the way to Tarragona, is an impressive Roman aqueduct: officially the Aqueducte de Les Ferreres, but also known as the Devil’s Bridge. It was built in the 1st century BC, during the reign of Emperor Augustus (27BC to 14AD) and it carried water from the nearby River Francoli to the Roman city of Tarraco, now Tarragona. It is 249m long and it was in use right up until the 18th century.
This is our third major Roman aqueduct so far on this trip, but the contrast with the other two (Segovia and the Pont du Gard) couldn’t be greater. Here there were no hoards of tourists and no fancy visitor centre: just a tiny pull-in off the motorway and a small sign. But in some ways this made it even more exciting and impressive because you could get up really close to it. You could even walk across it, along the water channel at the top, which was unreal.
I still find it almost inconceivable that these structures still survive from so long ago, given how narrow, tall and seemingly vulnerable they are. And what is even more incredible is that no-one appears to be protecting or looking after this one and yet it was perfectly safe for us to walk across it some twenty centuries or so later! You have to take your hat off to those Roman engineers and builders!
So, why on earth is it called the Devil’s Bridge? I was intrigued at how it could’ve ended up with such an unfortunate name. The legend goes that many years ago there was an elderly couple who lived in a forest near Tarragona. Every day they loaded up their donkey with produce to sell at the nearby market and crossed an old wooden bridge over the river to get there. One day, after a heavy storm, they found that the bridge had been washed away. Just as they were wondering what to do and how they were going to keep getting to market, a strange looking man appeared from nowhere. They told him of their predicament and he said “Don’t worry, tonight I will build you a new bridge and it will be made out of stone so that it cannot be washed away.” The old man and his wife were worried because they thought that no-one could possibly build a bridge in one night, so they asked what the bridge would cost and the stranger replied, “I will build the bridge for free and all I ask in return is the soul of the first to cross the bridge.” The old couple realised at this point that they were talking to the devil and the old woman hesitated briefly before accepting his offer. The next morning when the couple arrived at the river, they found a large stone bridge and the devil standing waiting for payment. The old man looked worried. “What should we do now dear?” he asked his wife. Quick as a flash the old woman turned, slapped the hindquarters of the donkey and they watched as it trotted off across the bridge.
Entrance is free into the park surrounding the aqueduct and there are walking trails all around it. The whole area didn’t feel very well looked after and the paths were overgrown, but again in a way this only increased the magic of the place. I couldn’t help thinking that Spain must have so many amazing Roman ruins that it didn’t need to bother making anything from this incredible aqueduct. Had this been in the UK, it surely would’ve been one of the top visitor attractions in the country!
Practical information for visiting The Devil’s Bridge:
The Devil’s Bridge is 4km north of Tarragona and the easiest way to access it is by car where there is a viewpoint and car park just off the southbound carriageway of the AP-7 motorway. From here you just follow the marked trails. Alternatively, take the N240 from Tarragona towards Valls and Montblanc. Shortly after leaving the city the road passes under the AP-7 motorway and the turn-off is approximately 200m after this. There is a free car park at the entrance to the park.
As well as the Devil’s Bridge there are also some incredible Roman ruins in Tarragona itself.
Park del Garraf
There are plenty of walking trails and interesting villages in the mountains (del Garraf) surrounding Vilanova. We did a great, although very steep, walk direct from our campsite on the edge of town up into the hills and were rewarded with spectacular views down along the coast and also over into the next valley.
Vilanova is also an excellent base from which to explore Barcelona. There is a regular Mon Bus service into the city that also stops at nearby Sitges, or you can catch a local train. The bus costs €5.50 per person each way or you can buy a T-10 ticket which gives you ten journeys for €34.95. It takes about an hour and you can get off at the Plaça d’Espanya (near to Montjuic Park) or at the Plaça de la Universitat further into the city.
There is so much to do in this magnificent city and I have written about some of our highlights:
- Barcelona: First Impressions and Getting Around
- Barcelona: Park Guell
- Barcelona: Casa Batllo and Montjuic Park
- Barcelona: The Mathematical Beauty of the Sagrada Familia
- Christmas Markets in Barcelona and some rather unusual Catalan traditions
Friends and Family
We will also remember Vilanova very fondly because of the socialising we did and the friends we made there. In March, Andy’s sister and brother in law came out to visit us and we spent four relaxing days with them here. They spent a day in Barcelona and then got the train out to Vilanova where they rented an apartment in the centre of town, just off the top of the Rambla, which was so convenient for everything. It was built in 1832 and it was so grand inside we decided it could well have belonged to one of the Americanos we had read about.
There was a cavernous entrance lobby, reached through a small section of its huge wooden doors. Once inside, the walls and ceilings were all painted with colourful frescoes and it had what looked Ike its original tiled floor and shutters on the windows. The owner had modernised it beautifully, keeping all these original features and yet adding a modern kitchen and bathroom. It also had two bedrooms and so the girls had a little mini holiday from us and from the caravan, having a sleepover with their aunt and uncle for a couple of nights. We laughed a lot and had a fabulous few days creating some wonderful shared memories with them.
Then in December we met Keith, our New Zealand neighbour who we got to know whilst his wife, Bron’e took a trip home for a job interview. And when Bron’e returned, we enjoyed getting to know her too. We spent many happy evenings with them, chatting over a beer or two and sharing a meal. We also sampled the food at the campsite restaurant with them and some other neighbours, Charlie and Angela.
Vilanova is also where we first met the Foster family, who we later met up with in Madrid. Like us, they are travelling and living in a caravan. They have three girls, the elder two of whom are about the same age as Emma and Megan and the girls played endlessly together, from as soon as they were allowed to go and call on each other every day. We also got to know Claire and Kris and it was fun having another travelling family with whom to discuss things that not many people we know have experience of, like homeschooling and living full-time in a caravan. Amazingly we’re not the only family crazy enough to do it!
We loved Vilanova for its simple, non-touristy feel and it fabulous climate. The Garraf mountains that sit behind this stretch of coast seem to give it a micro-climate all of its own and it can be warm and sunny here when it is not so good in Barcelona just a short distance away. It is somewhere I could definitely see us returning to one day.