Travel Editor Lydia Don recounts her three day trip to Salou and Barcelona, downplaying the idea that Brits abroad destinations cannot provide relaxing and culturally enlightening experiences

Written by Lydia Don
Travel Editor, and English Language and Literature student at the University of Birmingham.
Images by Lydia Don

We all know what the tail end of Spring means for university students: assignments. All-consuming exam stress, obsessing over the ‘what if’s?’ and feeling as though your life has been confined to your laptop as you incessantly prepare for the inevitable. I don’t know about you, but even at any slight moment of respite my thoughts turned solely to travelling, holidays, freeing myself from the confines of my home office in favour of cultural immersion. So as the date of my final assignment loomed, I met with my amazing friend and fellow English Language and Literature student, Ellie (who was equally desperate to escape to somewhere new), and we booked our first trip away together!

We debated the possibilities for hours in a random Birmingham Starbucks before excitedly settling on Salou, a resort town in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region. Safe to say we were incredibly excited, counting down the days until our escape from the gloominess of Birmingham and the assignment stress we associate the city with – not to mention the dull weather! We followed the Visit Salou Instagram page, every post increasing our anticipation for our holiday as we relentlessly sent their posts to one another with swathes of hearts, excited faces and sun emojis firmly alongside. 

Day One 

We embarked on our journey at the criminal hour of four am. Once reaching Birmingham airport, we were on full alert as the queues spiralled throughout the entire airport. Flight numbers being called out and people being pulled to their planes that were close to departing without them, we worried about whether we would make our flight. We realised the news stories on the carnage at Birmingham Airport were not exaggerated. This was certainly not the nicest start to our holiday, bringing us back to the stress we were so desperate to disassociate from. Ultimately, however, we did make our flight, and landed in Barcelona only two hours after we departed Birmingham. We reached our hotel in Salou after an additional two hour coach journey.

Though we were tired from the travel and early rising that morning, we were ready to explore our local surroundings. After eating at a quintessentially Spanish restaurant – The Britannica (okay, sorry, it was the closest one to our hotel, and we were so hungry!) – we made a beeline for the beach. Little did we realise, after a mere ten minute walk, we would reach a hidden gem, enclosed by cliff faces and greenery. From every angle we were mesmerised, in disbelief that we were seeing an ocean so clear and within arm’s reach – a big deal from two Brummie girls living in the landlocked city! We sat on a rock admiring our surroundings and watching the tiny fish swim frantically in the small rockpool at our feet. We knew we would be back the next day for a spot of sunbathing and book reading. That evening, we freshened up, put on the summery dresses usually buried deep into our untouched summer wardrobes, and ventured out to the main bustling part of Salou for dinner. Despite being approached at what felt like every second by restaurant owners enticing you to dine at their establishments, we really enjoyed wandering the streets.

Everything was so clean, green and prompted the perfect mix of relaxation and thrill as we ventured to this completely new place for both of us. We wandered around some shops, namely the ones with the most touristy souvenirs possible – you have to when you are on holiday! They had everything from sunglasses to t-shirts (with rather inappropriate slogans on it, apt for the numerous lads and girls weekend holidayers flocking here looking for a laugh), to magnets and keyrings. The shops were sensory overloads for sure, but they were so fun to explore and made us feel firmly in holiday mode!

We wound up back at our hotel playing games of Uno, the quintessential holiday game which I frustratingly lost three times in a row. I will certainly be challenging my friend to another game when I’ve revised (or rather established) my tactics – I will be a force to be reckoned with next time, watch out Ellie! 

Little did we realise, after a mere ten minute walk, we would reach a hidden gem, enclosed by cliff faces and greenery

Day Two

The next day we ventured back to the beach, snacks and sun cream in hand! We set down our towels and soaked up the Spanish sun. It was the perfect amount of heat: not oppressive, but undisturbed by wind or dark clouds. I’m not usually the sort to sunbathe for hours on end, but this was just the relaxation I needed, one where you do not feel guilty for thinking of nothing at all – it was pure ecstasy. I ended up reading my book too, Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers (a charity shop find about a journalist uncovering a woman’s claim that she had a virgin birth). It was so refreshing to read something for pleasure and for no other academic agenda other than adding another book to my ‘completed’ pile.

After we both baked in the sun, a spot of sea swimming was in order. It was initially a shock to dip my toes into the deceptively cold Balearic Ocean, but as my body became increasingly submerged in water, it became much more enjoyable. Eventually I dived in as a wave curved over me. The sense of freedom was exhilarating, feeling my hair flow through the water and the sand sprinkle off my sun kissed body. I jumped the waves, giggling as I felt the water pushing me over. The sea was a lot less calm than the previous day, but that made it all the more fun for everybody there – I felt like a 20 year old kid, reluctant to return to my belongings as I realised the morning was turning to evening.

We got ready for the evening and ventured out to the waterfront in the main part of Salou. The path ribboned along the ocean where, even at 6pm, people were still swimming and sunbathing. We made sure to get pictures together by the ‘Salou’ sign painted in rainbow colours, a colour scheme we noticed all around Salou as a sort of advertisement for the region’s joyfulness and combining of holidaymakers from all across the world (though predominantly, and certainly noticeably, by British and Irish families). We ate dinner – paella – at a restaurant with views of the coastline, going on to find a little café amongst rows of shops selling fresh churros. The food was incredible, and certainly relieved the increasingly tingling sunburn prickling us. As we headed back, we stopped at the store next to our hotel selling tours and bus tickets to different parts of Spain.

We decided to go with a day trip to Barcelona – a two hour coach ride which cost us €24.95 each. We both thought that, while we were in mainland Spain, it would be worth mixing it up a bit the next day, though we’re certain Salou had much more to offer.  

Day Three

We really wanted to make the most of our three days, and Salou’s regular and reliable bus service made going to Barcelona for the day a no-brainer! We felt like we were stepping into a movie set: though shops lined the streets, the historical buildings encasing them did not make it feel like a shopaholic’s paradise! After making a not so quick stop at Sephora (again, sorry, but we wanted to make the most of it since it is not yet in Birmingham), we walked to the Cathedral.

Barcelona is a very walkable city, with narrow side streets acting as the threads holding together the larger, more populated shipping streets. One memory I will hold dear is the two of us sitting in front of the cathedral, ice cream in hand, and listening to a man busk with his guitar as we watched the world go by. It was what my mum later defined as “the moment”: the moment when you are in a place where you get that sinking feeling you experience when falling in love. This is something I was searching for, and something Barcelona undoubtedly brought to me. We continued to Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia Basilica, previously unfinished due to a lack of funding from the general public who the church relied on for donations. However, the presence of scaffolding and green netting to protect workers as they built on this magnificent building offered hope that the much-loved basilica would be finished soon. Ellie and I agreed that it was amazing to see it unfinished, a work in progress already loved by locals and tourists alike. You can pay to enter the building, but we chose not to, prioritising our continued wandering of the streets, but concluding that we would love to enter the Basilica had we had more time in Barcelona.

From here we made the 30-minute trek towards Park Güell, Barcelona’s picture postcard park with its colourful tiled walls and other-worldly feel. It is known as architect Antoni Gaudi’s most revered work, with its sprawling colours and whimsical feel. Unfortunately, we had not booked, and the tickets were sold out by the time we got there – in hindsight, as this has been on my bucket list for years, we should have booked – ensure you do this yourself to avoid disappointment! At this point we were hot, tired and disappointed – a fellow tourist picked up on this, kindly informing us that a staircase to our right led up to a hilltop promising breathtaking views of the city. We gratefully took his advice, and struggled up the hundreds of steps to the top. The views certainly excelled our expectations: incorporating the sea, sand and city in its breathtaking views, I felt it to be the perfect image to summarise our trip.

We took a taxi back into the city and ate at a tapas restaurant full of locals – that’s how you know it’s good! We had patatas bravas, mushrooms and calamari, which was amazing and satisfied my desire to eat as authentically as possible (I saw way too many Brits at McDonald’s and Burger Kings in Salou and Barcelona which was both comical and embarrassing for our nation in equal measure).  

We felt like we were stepping into a movie set: though shops lined the streets, the historical buildings encasing them did not make it feel like a shopaholic’s paradise!

We reflected on our first time in mainland Spain, wishing we could have spent more time in Barcelona but being incredibly rested and culturally enlightened even after three days! Our collective highlights were certainly the beach and Barcelona’s Americanised and yet culturally capturing streets. Barcelona and Salou were undoubtedly worth visiting and are certainly places we will both return to in the future.

This holiday was the perfect remedy to our exam stress, setting off our summer holiday on the right foot and reminding us to make the most of every minute of every day as our holiday went by in the blink of an eye! Just taking a couple of days to detach yourself from your reality, enjoying a life unhampered by work or studies or emails, really is the best remedy.  

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