Giants and banana boats: One day in Calella, Costa Barcelona, Spain
It’s hard to know which of Calella’s claims to fame to focus on first: perhaps the fact it’s an official ‘Catalan Family Holiday Destination’, one of the earliest to get the coveted title. Or perhaps its importance among the beach resorts of the Costa Barcelona, given city status after being granted a licence to hold a market back in the 14th century.
Maybe its fascinating lighthouse high above the centre, still functioning and one of only four in Spain where the city has the authority to look after it.
Or it could just be the mix of everything – history, tradition, family-friendly atmosphere and lovely beach – which made it so enormously appealing, one of my favourite stops in our tour of the Costa Barcelona. With less than one day in Calella, here’s why you should spend a lot longer.
One day in Calella: Start at the lighthouse
First opening in 1859, the lighthouse is still the symbol of the city. A short way outside the centre, you can walk along the beachfront and up the hill to discover a communications museum inside. The last lighthouse keeper left in 1993, but the computerised system is still functioning, its own special combination of three short and one long flash beaming out onto the Mediterranean and visible up to 35 miles away.
You’ll probably come for the views: of the lighthouse itself, white against the blue sky, or the panorama of the wooded hills on one side and the golden sands along the other. But while you can’t go up into the tower itself, do make time for the museum.
Here you’ll discover that the lamp was orginally lit with olive oil and that pirates once plagued the coast of Spain, while the lighthouse keeper and his family were still consigned to an isolated existence, despite being a short walk from town rather than marooned on a sea-battered rock.
The exhibits inside are even more fascinating, looking at the different means of communication from a burning light to optical towers which ran up the coast to France, as well as the different chimes of church bells with their variety of messages, including storm warnings and the death of an archbishop. There’s video installations, interactive models and maps, so it’s great for kids as well as adults.
If you’re staying in Calella, there are also regular concerts at the lighthouse with a small train running up from the tourist information office. The price varies but it’s rarely over 10 Euros and kids are always free. Entrance to the lighthouse and museums costs only a couple of Euros with opening hours depending which month you visit.
One day in Calella: Wander the old town
The city takes its family-friendly status seriously, as you’ll see if you take a wander through the old town. Lampposts have regularly changing pictures for children to spot, the library has storytelling and activities, and the leafy peaceful Parc Dalmau, with its existing play areas and Spanish civil war air shelter, is scheduled for renovation to update the facilities further.
As you wander, keep an eye out for the cactus house – so called because the owner has grown enough cacti to decorate the outside – as well as the picturesque historic buildings around the Ajuntament Vell de Calella, or Old Town Hall, now a cultural centre with a fantastic huge old door. Many have symbolic shields, designs and even figures outside, while the 14th century chapel of St Quirze and Sta Julita doubled as an even earlier town hall.
By happy coincidence, we visited during September’s Festa Major – the city’s biggest celebration, in honour of the patron saint, when traditions dating back to medieval times still continue. The ‘Capgrossos’ or giants of Calella are the focus of processions, the gigantic figures towering over the people and children clustering around. One, a jester figure, was the centre of attention, happy to pose for photos in what must have been a pretty warm costume on a sunny September day.
Down on the waterfront, there was a huge market showcasing local arts and crafts, and more food than you can shake a cured sausage at, along with some imaginative and creative areas for kids, music, a flower-strewn chill-out area, and generally lots of temptations to wander and spend money. But there are events year-round, including an Oktoberfest beer festival.
One day in Calella: Hit the beach
The biggest temptation for most visitors is the beach. Strictly speaking, several beaches, including the Blue Flag Platja de Garbi which is adapted for wheelchairs and the ‘big’ beach or Platja Gran with its watersports centre and beach clubs. After ditching the idea of canoeing or sailing a catamaran (and not having chance to parasail), we all headed out on a banana boat ride – one of my 13 things to do on the Costa Barcelona.
It’s open to children aged five and up… with the staff giving a much gentler ride if there are kids on the inflatable. No such chance for us: we whizzed along behind the boat as they grinned, videoing away until inevitably we all ended up in the water (this being the Mediterranean, it was still pretty warm and our lifejackets had us bobbing back up straight away. The hardest part was getting back on again!)
On the sands, there are free family activities every day and evening during summer as well, with several beach clubs dotted along the seafront – keep an eye out for the lunchtime menu of the day, at around 12 euros including wine, with paella normally on offer on Thursdays. Don’t make any energetic plans for the afternoon though.
We settled down at Nui Beach club, which manages to be chic and chilled out at the same time, with a outdoor area for snacks, sunbeds, and a restaurant indoors which makes you understand why lunch takes three hours in Spain. As well as paella, there’s a baked rice version and fideua made with noodles instead of rice: so good we tried all three, along with addictive bread rubbed with tomato and garlic, meltingly good ham and seafood, all accompanied by local wine. Mini gourmands will be all but in heaven, there’s a kids’ menu too for less enterprising eaters like my daughter.
Not too hungry? Go for a ‘vermouth’ – an aperitif with snacks before dinner, usually a few euros, for olives, cockles and crisps accompanied by a refreshing drink made with red martini.
More than one day in Calella?
Honestly, one day isn’t enough – you’re around an hour from Barcelona on the train if you fancy a journey along the coast and a taste of Gaudi (or the zoo and aquarium). Or you’re around an hour’s drive from Montseny natural park, a biosphere reserve, plus the organic wines and vineyard at Alta Alella.
We stayed at Camping Roca Grossa on the outskirts of town, with two lovely pools, sports facilities and play area (all on a very steep hill if you’re travelling with a buggy), although there are plenty of hotels in Calella itself if you’d rather be in the heart of everything. Check out my video review of Camping Roca Grossa.
Back to Calella’s claims to fame… The biggest was that from all our stops on a hugely fun trip, this is the place I could see myself wandering with my daughter, eating ice cream as we amble along cobbled streets, claiming a spot on the beach and building a gigantic sandcastle, then coming home with the kind of happy grins that I saw on everyone else that day.
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Disclosure: My trip was courtesy of Costa Barcelona tourism. All opinions and ability to eat three different kinds of paella in one sitting are my own.
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