Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.
Foodie fantasy outside the city of Barcelona
Here’s a not-so-secret secret: I’ve avoided driving in any nation except my own… okay, I’m ignoring Canada. Forgive me, neighbor to the north! But your roads are so similar to my own, and I can bring my own trusted car. It doesn’t count.
On this, my most recent trip to Europe, I faced a conundrum. Hire a rental car, or give up a much anticipated trip?
I rented a car. I hated almost every minute of driving the lovely but oversized Renault Espace in even small cities like Vilafranca del Penedès and Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, but it did provide me with the means to reach a really sublime rural experience: a mother and son private cooking class with the owner at B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès, about 45 minutes outside of Barcelona.
Background: civil unrest in Catalunya & a nervous husband
My husband, whom we might politely describe as “travel averse,” was trying to dissuade me from joining him in Barcelona with DS2 at all. DH was near to canceling his own appearance at a really interesting conference. Why? The Catalan independence movement, and media depictions of dissent and violence that were widespread in the months leading up to our trip.
Back in the spring, when I found a reasonable* coach airfare to join DH on this jaunt to Spain, I immediately invited my children to come along. Shocking no one, my little guy opted to miss a week of school and join us; to my chagrin, my punk teen decided he would rather stick to his usual academic routine at home and demurred.
Though I find myself pondering whether someone could have switched DS1 at birth** for my rightful child, I do sort of understand the teenager’s desire to assert his independence by doing something—anything!—different from what his parent suggests.
Beyond the city limits: choosing an experience
So there were three of us headed to Spain in the early winter of 2017. We would be staying in the heart of Barcelona for the four nights of the conference. After that, DH booked his ticket home at the earliest possible moment. To save over $1000 each, DS2 and I needed to stay over until Saturday.
Originally, I’d booked accommodations in the medieval center of Girona for the parent-child short break. Girona is about an hour north/northwest of Barcelona. Trains, while available, aren’t super convenient to that village, however. There is no city-traffic-avoiding route back to BCN Barcelona International Airport during morning rush hour without a private car. Parking in old Girona is also not known to be convenient.
While I was keen to visit this ancient town due to its beautifully preserved Jewish quarter and its being the setting for a great series of medieval mysteries, it turns out that the world has discovered Girona because Game of Thrones has filmed there. That’s a little too much pop popularity for me to visit El Call right now.
DH, fearing he would leave and then a transit strike—or worse, total civil unrest!—would leave his wife and child at the mercy of a rioting mass of Catalan separatists, wanted me to make a plan better suited to last minute changes and further removed from the politicized masses.
I booked a rental car from BCN for the morning of DH’s departure. This option provided us with freedom of movement in the face of taxi strikes or to flee more serious unrest in that unlikely event. I then found an intriguing bed and breakfast outside the city in which DS2 and I would spend our final two nights in Spain.
As an aside, I never felt unsafe in Barcelona or the surrounding region. Except possibly while negotiating the narrow, winding exit from the airport parking garage in an SUV the size of a semi, but you can’t blame that on politics.
Catalunya: experiencing hearth & home
One of the ideas I’d entertained for making the trip to Spain a pleasure for both myself and my younger son was a cooking class.
Yes, it’s true, any regular reader knows that I’m not typically an enthusiastic cook.
That said, I am an enthusiastic student of what makes other people—and other cultures—tick, and it is hard to place a finger on the pulse of Catalunya without discussing food. These are people who love to eat, who know how food really ought to be, and who seem to enjoy sharing all of the same.
I’d entertained the notion of this class in Barcelona, but the timing wasn’t working out quite right. Plus, if I’m honest, I would rather visit a nice, dusty history museum any day, whereas my son was hoping to stay in the hotel watching his favorite cartoons in various languages.
What did pop up when I started researching lodgings outside the city of Barcelona, but within a radius of about one hour, were farm- and winery- based experiences.
Penedès, if I’m getting this right, is the heart of the grape growing region that produces some the world’s best sparkling wines, or cava, as it’s known locally. At least one person with whom I spoke implied that champagne is basically just a French knock off of Catalan cava!
I won’t take a position in the subjective argument of “best” or the historical question of “first,” but I can tell you that it is easy for a non- aficionado to learn about and experience great sparkling wines in Penedès, even with a child in tow.
So I booked the B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès and hoped for the best. It had good reviews on Trip Advisor, but was mostly an unknown. I chose to use Hotels.com for booking, just in case any of it was less than legit, but, in the end, have nothing but good experiences to report from Penedès.
If I return, next time I will book directly with the B&B. When you do, they guarantee you the lowest room rate and give you a free bottle of cava as a welcome gift.
B&B Wine & Cooking, El Pla del Penedès
This bed and breakfast is family friendly. I’ll start there, because so many B&Bs in the USA are fussy establishments that seek to insulate their guests from such inconveniences as children and telecommunications. This is not that.
There was a television set in our guest room, but there was no telephone. Then again, why bother installing land lines in this hyperconnected day and age? There was free wifi on site, and it worked in our room and downstairs in the common areas. It was too chilly for me to check the signal out in the garden.
Kids & families at the B&B
B&B Wine & Cooking is a family run endeavor. The hostess, Marta, is assisted by her husband, who has worked in the hotel industry for years†, but she is the face of B&B guest relations, and probably most of the manpower behind the scenes, too. They live on site with their own two children.
I did hear some evidence of the children in residence one evening out of two, but they were quickly hushed and must have been hurried away. This was less intrusive than the few minutes of noise in the hallway when another party an adult couple checked out, and much less so than sounds I’ve heard at larger hotels with rowdy, snoring, tv-blaring, or heavy footed upstairs guests.
B&B Wine & Cooking is situated in a quiet, rural environment and surrounded by fields and farms. Most of what you hear is peace and quiet.
I wouldn’t recommend staying here for anyone who hates children, but neither are the owner’s kids obvious to guests.‡ My own son perked his ears up during the one instant when we heard sounds of children.
“I hear girls,” he said. I think he was a bit disappointed that he never saw them. After most of a week enduring all adult company, he would have loved to play.
My son did enjoy some time with a friendly cat outside the B&B. He was also charmed by the chickens who provide the breakfast eggs at B&B Wine & Cooking. Their coop is just a short walk away into the fields.
Outside, in the garden with its views overlooking valley and vineyards, there is also a charming little playhouse that calls out to kids. This, with the presence of the additional twin bed in my room, was all that emphatically advertised for children. Aside, that is, from Marta’s gracious manner and the warmth of her greeting to both mom and kid.
This isn’t a child-oriented environment in the fashion of Disneyland, but it does say, simply, and with an element of Spanish flair, that kids are people, too, and they are welcome to join the family here.
A room called Titan
Our room, Titan, named for the moon of Saturn, straddles the line between a standard room and a suite.
As with all of my favorite family hotel rooms, the division of space put the children‘s bed(s) in an adjacent space. The single bed is a daybed with a trundle unit tucked underneath. While my son offered to sleep in both the daybed and the trundle for the completeness of my review, I told him not to in order to spare Marta another set of sheets to wash.
My son found the daybed very comfortable for sleep.
There is no door between Titan’s two rooms; it is, rather, an open arch the size of a door. This is adequate for at some sight line privacy, but I wouldn’t recommend sharing the space with anyone you’d be really horrified to have see you stepping out of the shower in a towel.
Said shower, and an enclosed toilet cubby, are in the “second room” with the daybed. Both have opaque doors for privacy, and are well lit within for comfort and safety.
If you leave the toilet door open, you can see it from the child’s bed. When you step out of the shower, you will be in plain view of the same. The large, pleasant sink vanity is between the two special purpose cubicles and open to the bed.
What good is the second room, then? The partial walls do provide visual privacy from the large, king sized bed to the toilet, and the shower door is mostly out of view. Reading with a lamp needn’t disturb a sleeping child due to the shadow created by the same wall. Noise from the television might cause more issues.
Unlike a modern Holiday Inn, there is no second tv in the smaller child-/bath- room of Titan. I consider this a fine thing, but understand there are others who would prefer to let the kids watch cartoons while they enjoy something else from the master bed. A tablet or laptop should fill this need readily enough.
I began with the two room configuration because it was almost but not quite obvious to me that this was the setup when I booked via Hotels.com. Even a visit to the B&B’s direct site showed me more, but not quite enough, to sate my curiosity. You’re welcome!
The rest of the furnishings were simple, but very functional. Everything present was aesthetically pleasing at the same time.
The large bed was comfortable, and everything I could imagine wanting was exactly where it should be. There was an ample table on either side of the bed, and I could access power plugs to keep my phone charging within reach. In addition to phone, iPad, and Kindle, I had room for my full size box of Kleenex, Red Oxx Travel Tray, and a stack of books. Readers can make themselves at home in this room.
A good sized wardrobe sat across from the foot of the bed, and easily swallowed up the one overnight bag we brought in from our rental car. There was plenty of hanging space on the left, multiple shelves on the right, and also a some drawer space below.
While I’m not sure a hard sided suitcase would fit inside (perhaps under the bed?), enough clothing for a couple for many weeks would; a family could assign space to each member and stay organized for several days, at least.
On the same wall as the wardrobe, but across the arched opening to the smaller room and beneath the wall-mounted television sat a small bench in a narrow bit of space beside the entrance door. This made a perfect perch for dumping a tote bag as one walked in, or to sit and put on shoes before going out.
In the room’s corner behind the hallway door when it opened was a handy set of sturdy wall hooks. In my oft stated opinion, every hotel room should have them. Kudos to the B&B Wine & Cooking for offering three when most have none.
Completing the room’s furnishings on the same wall is a tiny desk and a wooden chair. This made a perfect perch for my Bluetooth keyboard as well as a convenient spot for an ogre to force a small boy missing school for a vacation to write up a couple of pages on his experience visiting Spain.
Everything I wanted was thoughtfully provided in the tastefully decorated room, Titan. This includes the only insect screens I’ve seen on a European window to date! I mention this because lack of same is a pet peeve of my fresh air loving husband.
With temperatures dipping below freezing, I only opened our room’s window to take this picture of the view.
The space was luxurious for one mom with a child, would have been very comfortable for three, and absolutely adequate for a family of four without too much stuff and sharing tolerably similar schedules.
The cooking class experience
We booked our private cooking class for our second afternoon at the B&B Wine & Cooking. I’ll write a separate post for it, as it deserves more than a few paragraphs.
Suffice to say that it was a lot of fun, modified to suit our specific dietary restrictions, and no more work than the participants wanted it to be. The servings—of wine, food, and attention from Marta—were incredibly generous.
Lazy cooks like me, families with children, and groups of adults should all consider this experience while staying at B&B Wine & Cooking. It’s suitable for all ages and abilities.
For the 95€ per person fee—only 25-50€ for children if at least 2 adults are in attendance—you’ll enjoy a full afternoon of activity and a very satisfying late afternoon meal.
In addition to your memories and photos, you’ll take home a souvenir apron and recipe book from Marta. You might also convince your picky child to try artichokes without a fight.
The Penedès region
Other things to do in the area
On our way from Barcelona to the B&B on Saturday morning, we had many hours to travel a fairly short distance. The rental company GPS led us unerringly along the lightly traveled weekend highways, so we opted to stop for lunch in Vilafranca del Penedès.
For those driving, you’ll be delighted to hear there is a public car park accommodating even the largest SUVs. It is practically beneath the Plaça Penedès. From there, we enjoyed a ramble through the narrow pedestrian streets, visited some shops for souvenirs, and saw an art exhibit in an historic building I have yet to identify using Google Maps where our lack of Catalan language skills made the whole presentation very mysterious.
The boy also ran through public squares chasing pigeons at every opportunity. The gentle—and mildly amused—glances of the old men looking on made me sure this is a pastime for boys all around the world.
We chose to eat lunch at a quick little takeaway place, nostrumCAFÉ, in no small part because it was the first place I encountered to grab a coffee after negotiating the parking garage in my whale of a rental vehicle. I needed a jolt of liquid courage to carry on… or at least a café solo. Their refrigerated cases full of mixed salads and ready to heat meals ended up providing us with lunch and leftovers to complete our dinner, so, for us, it was a perfect stop.
Elsewhere, the area offers winery tours, of course, but that wasn’t my first choice of activities with my elementary school aged child in tow.
Marta suggested we visit another nearby town with a popular attraction: the Simón Coll Chocolate Factory in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia. My son enthusiastically endorsed this option once he’d been assured that free samples were involved.
You’ll have to parallel park on the street to enjoy the Simón Coll Chocolate Experience, but it is well worth the effort. I saw several spaces that would accommodate compact cars before finally parking my rented
It would be best to allow extra time to find parking if you aren’t familiar with the area and/or fluent in Catalan, but is a town that presents no challenges to locals in this respect. If, like me, it takes you awhile to get your bearings in new places, make sure you snap some photos or otherwise note the location of your car. The streets are narrow, winding, and very foreign to an American tourist. I was grateful to have a pictorial map when we returned to the unfamiliar Espace.
Book ahead and arrive on time at Simón Coll. The tour is a set affair with official start times and doesn’t allow for late arrivals. The first portion includes a film with timed/lighted displays; they won’t open the doors during this event.
You will be offered many types of chocolate to taste, some specifically for the adults, and others geared toward a child’s palate. Your admission ticket also includes a discount at the on site chocolate store. I purchased most of my souvenirs of Spain after our tour, and completed a fair bit of my holiday shopping to boot.
Dining near the B&B
With our time in the area fairly limited and my energy waning after a stressful drive—due, I must add, to my dislike of driving under novel conditions and even more so in a strange, manual transmission, oversized vehicle, and not because of the minimal weekend traffic or excellent Spanish road conditions—we dined in the B&B’s breakfast room both evenings instead of venturing out.
Two important points:
- The B&B doesn’t offer dinner service, per se, but does have “dinner box” kits available for self service in the breakfast room’s cute pink fridge, and
- There is a restaurant right next door that happened to be closed on our first night at the B&B, and for which we felt too full to justify going on our second evening after our cooking class and subsequent enormous paella lunch.
For this reason, I have very little advice to offer about dining in and around El Pla del Penedès. I will say a little bit more about eating a cold supper at the B&B on our own.
Like many moms and people with food restrictions would have, I’d acquired a shopping bag full of non-perishable snacks after a few days in Barcelona with my family. Between the cheese and cava on offer at the B&B and my bag full of almonds, cherry tomatoes, crackers, and dried fruits, enjoying a light supper on site was easy and relaxing.
I had also packed along our leftover protein-rich salads from lunch in Vilafranca on our first day. Remember, it was near freezing outside, so they stayed quite cold packed together in my small insulated bag in the car. It’s a mom-ish habit of mine not to throw away leftovers while traveling until I think they’re spoiled, even when I doubt we’ll want them.
If I were coming back to B&B Wine & Cooking, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask Marta about supplying just a few more extras—or a bit of storage for more perishable items—to sup this way again. Unless staying in the heart of a city, I’m often loathe to go out in the evening when I’m tired, and Spaniards dine very late compared to even able-bodied Americans.
This adds to my recommendation for families with younger kids and those with dietary restrictions to considering a stay here. Marta could not have been more accommodating. The pleasant breakfast room was quiet and empty in the evening, but the addition of candles with matches in the Dinner Box made for a lovely atmosphere. I believe Marta also kept a radio playing soft music downstairs in the evening.
Given warmer weather, dining outside in the garden would also be a very appealing option. When my kids were younger, I was always relieved to feed them al fresco and save some poor server the trouble of sweeping up after childish maelstroms of crumbs.
Bottom line: a nearly perfect stay
In summary, I’m not sure I’ve ever stayed in a place that better suited my tastes. If I come back, I’ll let someone else do the driving. I’ll pack a bit more of what I’d like for a cold supper to supplement Marta’s offerings. Then, I think it really will be the perfect getaway for me.
I want to bring my husband back with me to El Pla del Penedès, and I think even he might like it!
B&B Wine & Cooking offers great value for the money. Rates are 100-110€ per night with breakfast included.
As the only guests during our stay, the array of cold dishes offered was still varied and plentiful. Far more food was on offer than we two could hope to eat. Fresh eggs from the chickens outside were cooked to order, and Marta made a special purchase of turkey cold cuts because I’d mentioned during our email exchange about the cooking class that we don’t eat the ubiquitous Spanish pork.
If you are looking for a getaway outside of Barcelona, try B&B Wine & Cooking in El Pla del Penedès. I think you’ll be glad if you do.
Contact B&B Wine & Cooking
*Under $500 round trip
**Not really. The kid is stubborn as hell, opinionated, and refuses to have his personal sovereignty and good sense ignored due to the relative recency of his birth. He looks like his dad, but his personality is very like that of his mother. Raising this child has proven to me that my husband is a saint.
†And still does, commuting daily to Barcelona
‡Frankly, I rather wish extremists of all stripes would just stay home with their grumps. Suggesting all kids make rude hotel guests is the equivalent of saying all <insert ethnic/religious/national group here> are rude hotel guests. You won’t need to parent my children if you meet us, and I hope not to confront your bigotry.