Girona Gem for Solo Travel, Romantic Getaway, or Group Retreat

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View from Balcony of Hotel Santa Marta, Lloret de Mar

When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused. —Rainer Maria Rilke

When drowned by stress, I go to one of my Happy Places which is often the ocean. 

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In my 2015 travels one of my happiest solo travel stays was at Hotel Santa Marta  –a beauty break amidst botanical gardens winding down, down, down to the shore. Sheer. Bliss.

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The near 15-acre (6-hectare) estate is located on its own private bay, Santa Cristina, and was chosen for the opening night party of this year’s European Travel Bloggers Exchange. I had already booked a stay there for a restful retreat after the networking/workshops of the conference ended, but by the time the ship reached sand I was in love with a wonderland lit by sunset.

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Costa Brava

The Spanish Mediterranean coast is as beautiful as beaches in Southern Italy and France.  I was there in spring when, like late fall/winter low season, a single sea view room can be as low as 115 Euro per night. I love boutique hotels for their privacy, but plan ahead because this paradise stays booked, particularly by Europeans who vacation along Costa Brava in high season.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.— Kate Chopin

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The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea. –Anne Morrow Lindbergh

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I loved swimming in the pool and sea, writing on the balcony,  and sleeping to the sound of waves in the ultimate room with a view.  It’s the perfect solo, group, or romantic retreat in Lloret de Mar.

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I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.-Anna Quindlen

For more on the beauty of Girona and the Costa Brava Coast, see my 5-Part Series (links below) and go here for more information.

Discovering Costa Brava: Spain’s Medieval Coast, Part I

Discovering Costa Brava’s Medes Islands, Part II

Discovering Costa Brava’s Bounty, Part III

Cycling Through Costa Brava’s Medieval Villages, Part IV

Discovering Costa Brava, Part V

Discovering Costa Brava: Part V

The best thing for being sad…is to learn something…That’s the only thing that never fails… That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting…Learn why the world wags and what wags it…Look what a lot of things there are to learn.― Merlyn to Arthur, T. H. White, The Once and Future King 

Plunge boldly into the thick of life, and seize it where you will; it is always interesting.— Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

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A secret buried beneath the floor, a scene from Ghost (though first it felt more Lucille Ball than Demi Moore),dungeons and dragons, and a magical meal.  I expected beauty and adventure from Costa Brava but was surprised by Catalonia’s hidden treasures, creativity and community.

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When exactly St. John of Bellcaire (Sant Joan) was built is a mystery given the Roman exterior but nave’s architecture which dates earlier.  For the whole story on churches and history in the area, free lance expert Nik Duserm (below) is the guide to get.

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Beneath its floor lies the remains of a Roman temple built before Christian missionaries came to Spain. We were invited to explore the ancient base in the earth’s belly.

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The parking lot outside was built on a former cemetery.  Though the remains were supposed to have been moved, it is thought that human bones are mixed in the gravel.

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Around the corner and up the hill is the 13th century Bellcaire Castle. Within are government offices and the Parish Church.

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Always remember, it’s simply not an adventure worth telling if there aren’t any dragons.--Sarah Ban Breathnach

War, famine, and floods once plagued the area, but proud of their survival, locals now share stories of their ancestors’ tenacity.

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Above, behind the houses of Bellcaire under fog is the Montgri castle (below). Feudal lords from both castles kept an eye on the sea and each other for attacks.

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A cannonball hole patched in the Bellcaire Castle.

At La Bisbal, capital of Emporda, Girona bishops lived and ruled. Touring the castle of a Medieval Square, tourists learn history and see education in action–children’s artwork displayed.

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During the Spanish Civil War, the castle was a prison. Above is the dungeon.  A region known for wine, below is where wine was made within the castle.

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Where I create, there I am true.Rainer Maria Rilke

At the School of Ceramics of La Bisbal we were shown how to take a spin on a potter’s wheel.

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A man practices the art of adventure when he breaks the chain of routine and renews his life through reading new books, traveling to new places, making new friends, taking up new hobbies and adopting new viewpoints. — Wilfred Peterson

Our amazing trip culminated with our last night together at Mas Masaller, a 13th century farmhouse owned by Joan and Marta, veterans in the restaurant industry. They offer half-board (European for breakfast, bed, and dinner) and picnic lunches on order. A decade ago I fell in love with agriturismos in Italy and escaped yearly, my first solo travel experiences, to a B and B called The Edgeworth Inn  in Monteagle, Tennessee.  The iron bed and quilts reminded me of their and my home.  Being at Mas Masaller with a group was fun; we watched soccer in the living room, then laughed around the huge table at dinner.

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After a delicious salad, Cocina de la Tierra, greens picked from the garden that day and cooked with sausage (what we call “country sausage” in Kentucky and Tennessee), was served. Seasoned and smoky, it was the best vegetable dish I’ve had since moving abroad last August.

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It was so good we assumed it was the main course. When Marta (below) brought out a huge kettle of chicken and we told her, she said of her husband, Chef Joan, “Not in this house! We have to  have plenty of food.”

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Joan also showed us how to drink the local wine properly.

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So Nick tried.

And then there were four…desserts.  A fitting end to a sweet trip!

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The closest airports to Costa Brava are Girona (GRO) or, farther south, Barcelona (BCN).  

If you missed Parts I-IV of this series, check them out for more details on what Girona has to offer at links below:

Part 1: Discovering Costa Brava: Spain’s Medieval Coast

Part 2: Discovering Costa Brava’s Medes Islands

Part 3: Discovering Costa Brava’s Bounty


Part 4: Cycling Through Costa Brava’s Medieval Villages

Thank you to Catalunya, Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona, and El Consell Comarcal del Baix Empordà for an amazing stay and introduction to all Costa Brava offers!  Note to readers: the opinions on this 5-Part series are all my own.  I recommend only travel experiences, destinations, services, accommodations, and restaurants I personally enjoy and would love to revisit.

Cycling Through Costa Brava’s Medieval Villages: Part IV

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”—St. Augustine

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Photo by Alba Plana of www.costabrava.org

No history text or virtual tour can compare to cycling through Medieval hill towns in a land where BC structures and prehistoric cave paintings remain. Nor can a classroom feel like wind tangling my hair, smell like lavender abuzz with bees,  or taste like fresh bread in an olive grove. Such was my escape to Emporda, Spain.

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Each time I leave the classroom to travel–to breathe history, literature, life–I return a better teacher.

I”ll never forget finally touching the wall William the Conqueror built in 1066, commencing the Medieval age of castles, chivalry, and courtly love.  Homer and Sophocles were beside me when I climbed a hill in Athens to the Parthenon and roamed the Coliseum in Rome. As a teen I’d studied about partygod Bacchus and Christian Paul.  But blushing at pornographic paintings in Pompeii VS standing in an amphitheater in Ephesus where the latter preached faith over religion made what I know to be true feel even more real.

Last month while in Catalonian countryside, I saw a wall older than all but one of the ancient edifices I’ve experienced. Built only one century after Delphi’s Temple of Apollo, Ullastret was the first Iberian establishment raised in 6th century BC in Girona.

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In the following centuries, as Romans, Visogoths, and Muslims invaded,  more walls, castles and towers would be raised for protection from attack.

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Sentries watched for pirates, but even when the coast was clear, in the wetlands below marshes bred malaria which claimed lives.  Today, Costa Brava still isn’t tame though locals no longer fight to survive.  It is a place of adventure and natural beauty. Here one can thrive and feel alive.

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Rather than a trusty steed, I powered through stone villages and past poppy fields on a  burricleta, an electric bicycle named for its burro-like benefit of providing horsepower to handle high altitudes.

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We began our journey (see our route here) in Gualta.

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First stop was a famous bridge, rutted from wagon wheels.

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We pedaled our way through Fontclara, Sant Feliu de Boada, Peratallada, and other towns. Five hours later we parked for lunch in Pals.

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Cycling Through Costa Brava’s Medieval Villages

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The plowed fields reminded me of Kentucky farms where I grew up.

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The town well

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Chef Jordi, of Hotel Mas Lazul met us in the grove after rising early to bake loaves for the tasting and for us to tote home. The master baker formerly worked alongside Santi Santamaria, chef of 3-star Michelin restaurant, Can Fabes.  We sampled six types. My favorite was the dessert bread with pumpkin and raisin. He said children are given bread with wine and sugar as a treat.  Each recipe takes 24 hours counting the rest and rise times. While he taught, our hosts made fresh aioli. The bread and spread…delicious.

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Riding buddies, Heidi and Patti, above, Rachel and Betsy below.

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Lunch time in Pals

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Discovering Costa Brava’s Bounty: Part III

Catalan dance in Barcelona
Catalan dance in Barcelona

Catalan cuisine is something to celebrate.  Below are two must-eat restaurants of Costa Brava.

Marc Genes of Visit Emporda  and  Alba Plana of Costa Brava Tourist Board  introduced my group of travel bloggers to locals excited to share their tables brimming with goodness.  Outside the Museu de la Mediterrania we sampled raw and cured sausages prepared as they were in the 14th century; brunyols, fried, sugared dough similar to beignets; local apples, bread, tomatoes, and wine.

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Our one day in L’Estartit meant sink or swim to manage two big events– snorkeling the Medes Islands and a meal.  Why we all didn’t sink after lunch at  La Gaviota is a mystery.  Located beachfront, it was my favorite restaurant of the eight delicious days I spent feasting on Costa Brava.  From Lloret de Mar through the Baix Empordà region, nature’s bounty of foods locally grown and freshly caught made tasting experiences simply exquisite.

La Gaviota. L’Estartit

Restaurant La Gaviota in L'Estartit
Restaurant La Gaviota in L’Estartit

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Deciding from all the choices was difficult.
Deciding from all the choices was difficult.

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Seafood lovers, this Poulpe a la galicienne (Octopus Galician style) is the best dish I’ve ever had. It could have easily been my meal rather than the starter.

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Main course, Hake donostiarra style

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Ratafia ice cream…Ratafia is a liqueur of lemons, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, mint, rosemary, and anise.

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Whiskey frozen cake (Tarte galcee au whisky)–as a Kentucky/Tennessee girl I couldn’t resist.

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This wine (below) was wonderful.

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Even the water was stylish.

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Thanks to the staff and our gracious host. owner Lluis Pigem.

South of L’Estartit was the most beautiful restaurant of the tour, a once-casino and terrace under a magnolia tree that reminded me of home.  The presentation of starters; their signature dish, Pals rice casserole; and the best macaroon dessert I’ve ever had relaxed us so much after a bike ride we needed a double expresso to continue our journey.
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Nice wine , fun friends
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Classy food, classic place

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We wondered if this was the casino’s safe in bygone days

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Scallops with cream of leek and truffle oil

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Foie grass with figs and mango jam

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Rice casserole made with local rice and seafood

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A fine finish…hazelenut and raspberry praline macaroon with Ferrero Rocher ice cream

Discovering Costa Brava’s Medes Islands: Part II

Medes Islands--photo by www.visitestartit.com
Medes Islands–photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

Of all the adventure and beauty planned for my “Discover the Medieval Coast” tour, I was most excited about snorkeling around the Medes Islands, the richest natural reserve in the western Mediterranean Sea.

Since before Johnny Depp donned an eye patch, I was swooning over swashbuckler movies with my mom. Going to a pirates’ playground dating back to the Middle Ages would be great fun.

The archipelago is located a mile off the shore of Estartit of  Torroella de Montgri in the Baix Empordà county in Catalonia.  The largest islands– Meda Gran and Meda Petita—were first home to Ancient Greeks and Romans. But in the 15th century, pirates moved in, motivating King Martí Humà to fortify the area, resulting in castles clustered along Costa Brava today.

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photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

Ottoman corsairs, or Barbary pirates, from North Africa occupied the islets next. And though French soldiers took them in the 17th century, during the war with Napolean they were defended.  Today the area is protected above and below, making the real appeal  of the Medes Islands what lies beneath.

photo by www.visitestartit.com
photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

I’ve always loved the ocean. Maybe because my sign is the fish or because I loved Jacques Cousteau.  Since he dove the area exploring lush layers of red coral, sponges, sea grass, starfish, sea bass, eels, barracudas, rays, fan mussels and red mullets, divers have followed suit.  Now I would, too.

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photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

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photo by http://www.visitestartit.com

Onshore I stuffed my first wetsuit into a bag remembering movies I’d watched as a child, thrilled when a giant octopus put a submarine in a chokehold.

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But as we pushed through the fog, then stopped in the middle of it, I thought of  Open Waters and all the Jaws marathons  I’d watched with my son.  It was the kind of chill thrill–an excitement and dread–I’d hoped for.

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I’ve been asked how I had the courage to move to an African country I’d never seen. The short answer is, “It felt right.” Putting on a scuba mask, however, never has.  Dodging cobras in the square while being chased by henna hustlers is my new norm. Breathing through a tube still isn’t.  I’d snorkeled in Florida and Honolulu, and though the mask made me feel smothered, I knew if I panicked, my flippers could plant firmly in the sand.  Not so this time.

The air temperature was 65 degrees and I knew the water would be cold.

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After stuffing, then zipping myself into my wetsuit and posing for pics,

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the girl who slowly lowers herself into pools in 108 degree weather in Morocco dreaded plunging into the freezing sea.

“Hold your mask, count, and on 3, step off,” I was instructed. I was a kid again on my neighbor’s diving board trying to get the nerve to jump. Almost every time, I’d climb down, walk to the ladder, and lower myself into the pool. But I’d come too far–not because we’d driven from Lloret–but because living abroad started with a solo trip to Costa Rica. I’d called it my No Fear tour. I’d learned over the last nine months that the real No Fear tour isn’t a trip; it’s a long journey called life.

One, two, go.

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As water rushed into my sleeves and up my arms, members of the group shared support, body heat, and a floating ring if needed.   I’d spent the last ten months keeping my head above water, a fish out of water, a mermaid in Marrakesh.  In Puerto Viejo I’d finally floated on my back without my feet sinking… by relaxing.  Face up, I’d smiled at the sun.  This time, if I wanted to see beauty, I had to relax, but with my head down, submerged in a world where I can’t breathe.

I stopped fighting the waves with my fins.  I depended on the mouthpiece, the tube, and my arms to keep me afloat.  I relaxed, listened to my breath, and I looked. I released the ring, knowing I could swim.  I could breathe.   A school of grouper and a meadow of sea grass waved me on.

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Check out the fabulous blogs by my expat friends living in the UK and the Netherlands: Shobha, of Just Go Places, and Rachel, of Rachel’s Ruminations.

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Heidi (3rd from left below) is a Belgium blogger who worked at an aquarium and dreamed of seeing a sun fish, a mola mola, in open waters. On our way back to shore, one made a special appearance just for her.
Heidi (3rd from left above) is a Belgian blogger who worked at an aquarium and dreamed of seeing a sun fish, a mola mola, in open waters. On our way back to shore, one made a special appearance just for her.

Thanks, MEDAQUA, for the adventure!

Check out all Torroella de Montgri, l’Estartit, and The Medes Islands have to offer here: CATALEG_GB

Discovering Costa Brava, Spain’s Medieval Coast: Part I

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Adventure, beauty, relationship…basic human desires. All were met recently exploring Spain’s Costa Brava (Wild Coast). Between Barcelona and Jimmy Buffett’s Coast of Marseilles, I snorkeled in open waters, biked through Medieval hill towns, and laughed over meals and a pottery wheel with bloggers from Canada, the US, and Europe.

I’m a romantic. I’ve always loved the Middle Ages and the sea. My first fling in Spain in 2009 made me a Gaudi Girl, but this spring I fell in love with the country’s beaches.  I also value independence, freedom. So when I received an invitation to “Discover the Medieval Coast,” a sponsored trip to familiarize travel writers with Catalonia, Spain’s autonomous community, this castle-craving pirate princess was on the boat ready to ride.

Day One began with feeling all Game of Thrones on a walking tour of Lloret de Mar.  The former fishing town with Iberian and Roman ruins was transformed by fortunes made in Spanish-ruled Cuba and was site of the 2015 European  TBEX held days earlier. We followed the seaside promenade to 11th century Castle of Sant Joan, defense against sea attacks.  Though all but the tower was destroyed in 1805 by the British navy battling Spain and France, I climbed along the wall, each turn a new view of waves crashing into coves and crags below.

Once perched at the peak, I remembered Madeleine L’Engle’s words about artists–fitting since Catalonia is the land of free spirits Dali, Picasso, and Gaudi.  But since all of us are creations and creators of our own lives, they speak to moments when we face powerful forces. For this expat writer they are so true:

Artists have always been drawn to the wild, wide elements they cannot control or understand–the sea, the mountains, fire. To be an artist means to approach the light, and that means to let go our control, to allow our whole selves to be placed with absolute faith in what which is greater than we are.

As I headed to l’Esartit, I knew slipping into the sea– becoming one with it–would be wonderful.  And terrifying.

L'Loret de Mar

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l'Loret de mar

L'Loret de Mar, Spain

L'Loret promenade

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Lloret de Mar

Lloret de Mar

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Even when what’s around the corner is painful, when we shift our gaze we see  hope on the horizon.

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Getting to Lloret de Mar:  The closest airports are Barcelona (airport code BCN), 90km (56 miles) away and Girona-Costa Brava (airport code GRO),  30km (19 miles) away.   I flew RyanAir from Marrakesh.  My flight there was approximately $50/return $21, then took the Sarfa bus, which runs approximately every 30 minutes. Tickets may be purchased at airport bus office or on bus for 10 Euro.

Thank you to Catalunya, Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona, and El Consell Comarcal del Baix Empordà for an amazing stay and introduction to all Costa Brava offers!  Note to readers: the opinions on this 5-Part series are all my own.  I recommend only travel experiences, destinations, services, accommodations, and restaurants I personally enjoyed.

A Night to Remember at the European Travel Bloggers Exchange

The European Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX 2015) kicked off Thursday, April 30th with an Opening Night Party at Santa Christina Beach. Thank you, Costa Brava, for giving me a night to remember.  Thanks to last night’s hosts– Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona, Catalynya, and Lloret de Mar–and to TBEX for a great gathering this weekend.

The boat bucked and sprayed waves past rugged cliffs into the beautiful bay.  Candles flickering in the sand and strung lights blowing in the breeze were our sentinels after sunset.  The food and wine was fresh, local, delicious.  I especially loved the Cava, cheeses, fresh anchovies, grilled sardines, and strawberry basil sorbet.  The mayor and other tourism board members welcomed us followed by a human tower, live music, and even Marvin Gaye.  Best was releasing balloons with tweets.  As if a giant pearl necklace has been broken, they scattered, then rose toward the moon.

Best was meeting kindred spirits–fellow writers who share gypsy souls–now new friends.   Like Janice Chung.  A retired educator, the Canadian blogger has been to France 24 times and is my new go-to for advice.   Her Francetraveltips.com  is especially timely since today one of the travel reps offered me a press trip there.  We also met Camille Rumani, Co-founder of Viz Eat.  The site is to home cooking what airbnb is to home stays. I’m excited about finding her host houses for authentic meals in Marrakesh, then this summer scouting southern cooks to entertain tourists in Nashville.

Today I enjoyed Gary Bembridge and Heather Cowper‘s advice on moving from press trips to paid campaigns.  Thanks to the folks at Eurail for hosting the rooftop sangria and tapas party tonight.  Can’t wait to see what I will learn and love tomorrow.