My wife, Judy, and I had heard all the warnings about summer travel in Europe: swarms of tourists, overwhelmed airlines, long lines, unbearable heat. And yet we, too, were determined to resume the journey. Friends and family reacted with concern and bewilderment when we shared our plans to bring the kids, but we had lived overseas and traveled extensively when Gibson was a toddler, so it seemed perfectly possible to us. Despite everything I’ve read about Europe’s craziness this summer, I repeated the mantra: “If we can just cross the flight, we’ll be fine.”
He set out to show his son the 68 Civil War forts in the DC area.
It was better than good. It was spectacular. All the warnings came true: flights were delayed, we missed connections, we encountered crowds and sweated a lot and waited in long queues. Still, this trip was one of the best weeks of my life.
Before leaving, Judy and I set aside our usual travel ambitions. There would be no tasting menus, no endless wandering from tapas to the art museum and back. We were doing kids things, lots of them. And we did. We visited the zoo and the aquarium, but the real gem was the Tibidabo amusement park, built on top of the mountain of the same name. Its quaint, ancient rides are made thrilling as they literally tower over Barcelona. An otherwise typical Ferris wheel stands terrifying 1,600 feet above the sprawling city.
We went on a Thursday, as did 1,000 summer camp kids. We learned that kids everywhere lined up shamelessly, but also that those lines died out later in the day. As the shadows lengthened, we hit the bumper cars, the log flume, and three roller coaster tracks in quick succession.
Have I ever dreamed of spending a precious day in Barcelona at an amusement park? No. But they had slow rides for the little one, a paddling pool, a breathtaking view, as well as an ice-cold, perfectly drafted local Estrella Damm (Spain has truly mastered the art of pouring beer). The kids played so hard it saved us extra time for tapas later in the evening. At the adorable Bodega Santo Porcello in the Sant Antoni district, they devoured embutidos (assorted cold cuts) as if they hadn’t had any in days, and we took our time with perfect negronis.
The kids also took part in some things which we were excited to see. Gibson has created his own treasure hunt at the Picasso Museum, looking for the “shadow guy” hidden somewhere in each of the artist’s Las Meninas paintings. Our daughter was hard to contain at the Joan Miró Foundation, but we gave her a pacifier (in the stroller, of course), and the two children spent an inordinate amount of time in the museum’s children’s activity area with pads and crayons. Our son said his favorite Miró painting was ‘Landscape’, a plain white canvas with a single blue dot.
We were tired going up to Miró. But the energy of the children (and the incredible collection) gave us a second wind. When Gibson suggested a cable car ride to the top of Montjuïc, we couldn’t resist. He loved the panoramic views of the city, as well as the novelty of swinging through the sky in a small capsule. We finally walked down the hill, ate a very late tapas dinner at Bar Calders and used our last energy to get home and put the kids to bed.
Children magnify the indignities of being a high season tourist in a hugely popular destination. I remembered the Sagrada Familia basilica on a backpacking trip 20 years ago as impressive. This time the heat, the crowds and my worry of losing the toddler in said crowd made it a difficult experience. The nightly sound and light show at the magic fountain is fun, but it was mostly a sea of bodies and wetness as we tried to keep up with the kids.
Eight full days with your children permanently by your side and often physically above you, it’s hard. We took naps when they did and tried to save some time for cava and conversation after bed. But the toll of planning, bickering and cajoling caught up with us after a week. Yet, crowds and queues aside, we thought we had escaped the worst of Europe’s summer madness.
Then we tried to go home. Our return trip overseas, from Barcelona to Dulles, was delayed five hours, so we knew we were going to miss our connection to Kentucky. There was no other flight until the next day, so where would we stay? United did not tell us what accommodations they would offer until we arrived in Dulles.
After a nine-hour flight with a restless “baby on lap,” we were ready to crash. As we walked through an absurdly long hallway en route to passport control, it was well after bedtime, no matter the time zone, the kids hadn’t eaten, we still had no idea what was going on. where we were going to sleep and we didn’t have car seats or a crib.
Of course, the US airport experience is not designed for parents. In Spain, our stroller was a signal to airport and museum security to get us to the front of the line (or better yet, to the family line!). In Dulles, we wandered like nomads from counter to counter with our stroller and our pile of suitcases and personal items until we found a United agent who could help us. However, the only airport hotel they offered vouchers for didn’t have cribs. We finally found another airport hotel, a DoorDash-ed fast food joint, and fell asleep at midnight local time on my birthday, still 500 miles from our final destination.
They swam against the tide with a winter beach vacation. Verdict: Worth it.
The stress of returning home somehow magnified the fun and joy of our memories of Barcelona. On our last day, we walked to Park Güell, the craggy, naturalistic gardens designed on Carmel Hill by Catalan modernist master Antoni Gaudí. Most of the main objects of interest are sandwiched in one area, so if you’re not sure where you’re going, or you’re subject to the whims of a 6-year-old and his even more aimless little sister, you could spend a lot of time wandering through crowded paths up a nondescript Barcelona hill in the scorching sun.
Eventually we made it to one of the park’s highlights, Nature Square, for a quick family portrait at one of the most awe-inspiring views overlooking the city and continued on to the cool shade of the Hypostyle Hall, where Maggie could roam and scream with impunity. We gathered our strength and began the descent to the charming neighborhood of Gracia. It was a quiet summer Monday so many bars and restaurants were closed.
Determined not to settle in an old place for our last lunch in Barcelona, we kept pushing until we came across the tiny Bar Pietro. Maggie was in the middle of a deep stroller nap. Gibson seemed happy drinking Fanta and eating lacón (a thickly sliced Galician shoulder ham) sprinkled with paprika and oil. Judy and I started with cañas (small Spanish beer glasses) of crunchy Estrella, then moved on to Spanish-style gin and tonics and Aperol spritz, with the added pleasure of honey rum shots sent by the bartender to the small crowd of daytime drinkers. and U.S. We walked around an hour later, smiling ear to ear. Bringing our kids meant less of those moments, but we savored every one of them.
Cornwell is a writer based in Lexington, Ky. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @ghcornwell.