Travel: Rollercoaster of camping and culture in Costa Dorada, Spain

It's 30C on the last day of what just might be the best family holiday we've ever experienced and there's not a cloud to be seen in the bright blue Catalonian skies above Camping Park Playa Bara on the Costa Dorada.

The pool complex at Camping Park Playa Bara. Picture: Kirsty Hoyle

I, my wife and our three children, aged 14, 12 and 9, are soaking up our final rays on loungers next to the pool complex, occasionally cooling off with a refreshing dip, and mulling over the past couple of weeks. Everyone has different highlights, though we are all in agreement about one thing – the awesome weather. “Scorchio” sunshine every day ensures that the “just in case” jumpers remain unpacked for the duration.

A large and lively site, Camping Park Playa Bara lies 50 miles south of Barcelona and 20 miles north of Tarragona. Its entrance is marked by the Arc De Bara, a triumphal Roman arch dating back more than 2,000 years which once stood proudly on the Via Augusta linking Cadiz to Barcelona but now serves as a roundabout on the N-340.

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We are staying in one of Canvas Holidays’ Select 3 Bedroom mobile homes, which is clean and comfy with a spacious, air-conditioned kitchen/living area, plus shower room. The decor is a little worn and would benefit from an update, but with a glorious sandy beach a five-minute stroll away plus myriad day trip options, it’s mainly used for shut-eye. Our base is also perfect for al fresco evenings with the families from neighbouring mobile homes, chatting over snacks and sangria while our respective children join forces and disappear for goodness knows what adventures.

The surreal windows and balconies of La Pedrera in Barcelona. Picture: Kirsty Hoyle

The first night we arrive – a couple of hours later than expected due to a strike by baggage handlers – we are relieved to find the site’s courtyard restaurant is still open and serving delicious paella with seafood and what I think is chicken but suspect is rabbit, as well as tuna steaks, pizzas and burgers. Including soft drinks and a couple of jugs of sangria, we don’t get much change out of 100 euros but it’s worth every cent and gets us in the mood for Camping Park Playa Bara’s unique selling point – an amazing evening entertainment programme staged in a colossal outdoor amphitheatre.

If you are seeking peace and tranquillity of an evening, this may not be the place for you. But if your family enjoys staying up a bit later on holidays, head on down for the evening shows beginning at 10pm. These are a mix of the talented in-house animation teams performing family favourites such as Grease, Mama Mia and Frozen (children are invited to join in as extras – naturally our daughter stole the show as a troll) and impressive tribute acts to Michael Jackson, Seal and Adele, followed by a late night audience-participation boogie along to the summer’s Europop favourites and camp anthems. And while the main entertainment finishes at midnight, night owls are welcome to party on at the underground disco, which only begins at the witching hour and finishes well after we are in the land of nod.

Next morning, after picking up fresh pastries from the well-stocked on-site supermarket, we make our way to the pool complex. There is one pool at the top, connected by a wide slide down to the bottom pool, which I am thrilled to discover features a swim-up bar – sun-worshipping is thirsty work, after all. There is also an area for toddlers and another small pool with four fairly feeble water slides. The nautical-themed poolside restaurant serves fabulous pintxos – Basque tapas dishes on bread with tomato – and we fill up on patatas bravas, Spanish omelette and chicken strips with mustard jam. Lunch for the five of us including drinks usually comes to a little over 30 euros.

It would be easy and indeed highly enjoyable to stay on site the whole holiday, especially as there’s a full programme of organised activities suitable for all ages, including tennis, aquagym, waterpolo, boules, minigolf and the like, but we’re keen to do some exploring.

Some of the fearsome rides at PortAventura.

First up is Tarragona, an ancient port town of smooth, winding flag-stoned alleys opening out to enchanting squares, dotted with orange trees heavy with fruit. As we’re classed as a “large family” by the Spanish tourist authorities, we only have to pay one entry fee – a mere 7 euros – for all of us to access the spectacular Roman circus and coliseum, where our children gleefully recreate scenes of gladiatorial combat that had taken place on the same spot 2,000 years before.

Next is a 20-minute Sunday afternoon stroll from the beach to the quaint enclave of Roc de Sant Gaietà. The trip is partly curiosity about what lies around the coastal corner and partly necessity, as the Spanish sabbath seems to be the day for leisurely pre-booked family get-togethers over paella by the sea, and every restaurant along the Roda de Bara beach closest to the campsite has lengthy waiting lists for tables. It’s worth the walk though, as we secure a table for five at the cheap and cheerful La Petita Piazzetta, wolfing down cold drinks, tapas and hot dogs. Just what el medico ordered.

The following day we drive to Barcelona, stopping at footballing cathedral Camp Nou, before our minds are well and truly blown as we take in another church, Gaudi’s astonishing Sagrada Familia, construction of which began in 1882 and doesn’t look like finishing any time soon. Also on our whistle-stop tour are Gaudi’s main residential building, La Pedrera, and the captivating Casa Batlló – the house of the bones. At night we amble down La Rambla, the bewitching tree-lined boulevard of restaurants, florists, art stalls and all manner of unlicensed traders playing cat and mouse with the police.

Culture boxes ticked, the next day we head for PortAventura theme park, which is pretty much a must-visit for young and young-at-heart holiday makers in Catalonia. We go on the Stampida – a hellish wooden roller coaster which leaves at least one of our party in tears (I’m not saying who) – and an hour or so later, once we have regained our faculties, also try the wet and wild Silver River Flume and Grand Canyon Rapids, rounding off a fun-filled day getting thoroughly drenched on the Tutuki Splash.

The surreal windows and balconies of La Pedrera in Barcelona. Picture: Kirsty Hoyle

Our last night is spent back at Camping Park Playa Bara’s amphitheatre, fittingly watching a live stage version of Dirty Dancing – for on this holiday, truly we’ve had the time of our lives.

FACT FILE:

Seven nights at Camping Park Playa Bara, arriving 6 May, 2017, staying in a Select 3 bedroom mobile home with a/c is £347. Price includes a 10 per cent discount when you book before 29 September, www.canvasholidays.co.uk, 0345 268 0827

PortAventura day ticket, adults £45, children £39, www.portaventuraworld.com

Some of the fearsome rides at PortAventura.