Verdict: A brilliant and inexpensive way to properly live like a local, as well as a simply lovely human exercise. They say to understand a person you should walk a mile in their shoes. Well, we didn’t actually share shoes (not sure their highly sporty cycling shoes would have worked for us), but we did live in their house, drive their car and explore their home town, and definitely ended the two weeks feeling a sense of closeness with a family we still haven’t actually met.
We spent a LOT of time thinking about our last letter of the alphabet. X just proved a tricky customer: Google offered us a load of X places in China or Ohio, we did find one on Gozo which looked promising (Xaghara, I think? Though that looks wrong now I’ve typed it), and for a long time we thought we’d use our X to denote destination unknown — i.e. just turn up at the airport / train station and just go to a randomly selected place.
While we are still keen to try the Destination Unknown option, we eventually plumped for a home eXchange as we’d always wanted to try a house swap holiday and for the first time in years we weren’t in the middle of renovating or building our house, so the timing was perfect. So, we registered on Home Exchange, honed our copy, tidied our house, perfected our pictures, sent a million requests and waited …
It took longer than we had hoped, to be honest. We exchanged a few highly positive messages with a family in Victoria, BC, but couldn’t make the timings work, and then things went quiet … until a Spanish family we’d contacted in our initial flurry of emails changed their minds and emailed to say that they might be interested in visiting the beautiful city of Bath after all. Brilliantly, their children matched 2 of ours, they were happy to look after the cat, they were keen to swap cars as well (poor them — my car has definitely seen better days), they had a private POOL (a rare treat for our lot) and they lived in Catalonia, an area of Spain we’d always wanted to visit. It all seemed too good to be true, but as the weeks passed and the messages continued (could they recommend places for water sports and help with cycling? Could we suggest holiday clubs for their kids and help them book a premier league football match?) the house swap slowly became more concrete until the day we all reached the point of no return and booked our flights.
What we loved
The comforts of a home from home (with a POOL – oooh)
Our first day included a thunderstorm but for once we didn’t care because the house was more than equipped to handle an afternoon at home. The cupboards were full of toys, the bedrooms cosy, the sofas comfy and the kitchen complete. Some of us shopped, some of us swam, all of us relaxed in our home from home. We used the time to plan a few bigger trips — Barcelona for sure, the Pyrenees mountains and beaches of the Costa Brava — as well as some pootling around the lovely town, Banyoles, we’d landed in.
2. The lovely lakeside town of Banyoles and bombing about on our bikes
We just loved this place. It seemed to be full of triathletes, so we did our own version of a triathlon (a bit of cycling, some jumping into the lake and a little ice-cream eating). The family bikes came in very handy for popping to town or for a quick trip around the lovely lake for dips in the clear cool water. In fact, this turned out be the holiday of jumping off of things — piers, boats, platforms, rocks — you name it, we jumped off it — beginning with the lake of Banyoles (famous as a Barcelona Olympics venue and now a hub for triathlon training).
3. Exploring the beaches of the Costa Brava
We’d heard the Costa Brava beaches were beautiful so we were keen to visit at least one as they were only a 45 minute drive away, so early in the holiday, off we set for Playa Tamariu. No denying, this IS an absolute stunner of a beach, and we spent a fabulously sunny and relaxing couple of beach days jumping off the diving board (continuing the holiday theme), climbing the rocks, snorkelling and swimming in the bay, but boy was it BUSY — every inch of sand, every rocky corner absolutely crammed with colourful beach umbrellas.
4. Canyoning in the foothills of the Pyrenees
Officially I think what we did was a mild version of canyoning called river walking but it definitely felt more adventurous than this sounds. We all loved our day trip into the mountains for this mix of scrambling, climbing, sliding and, of course, leaping off rocks. OK, so I was less brave than our nine year old, and had to summon all my courage to do any of the jumps, but the payback in terms of achievement and exhilaration was huge… so much so, that Annie, our teen, said this was the best thing she’d done. Ever. High high praise indeed from our usually restrained eldest — and now top of our list of things to do again next summer.
5. Barcelona’s ebike tour and the Sagrada Familia
Barcelona was high on our wishlist for Catalonia, so we booked a train and hotel for an overnight trip to the cultural capital of Spain. Unusually for us, we had even organised an activity — an ebike tour of the city, which was a huge hit. We whizzed around and zipped through a large part of the city centre, including up Montjuic to the Olympic stadium, along the beach and through the old city. Although it did feel a bit like cheating, and there were some hairy moments dodging the crowds, the bikes were a brilliant way to see the city.
Other Barcelona hits, for us, were the Sagrada Familia (so so busy, expensive and very hot that day, but still jaw-dropping inside), the peace of Montjuic, the aquarium (we vowed to return for the cage diving) and La Boqueria market. However, we were less keen on the Ramblas (too full of tourists and just a little seedy) and the beach was heaving with people … perhaps both are best avoided in August!
Prepping the house was bit of a faff. Maybe our house is just generally dirty, or perhaps we were just very fussy, but the more I did the week before we left the more there seemed to be to do! However, on the flip side, when we came back the house was beautifully spring cleaned — and our lovely exchangers left their house pristine for us, too.
It was strange to think of a family we had never met living in our house for 2 weeks, and of course a house swap requires an element of mutual trust, but certainly in this case it felt like a wonderfully mutually beneficial trade, and I really enjoyed helping them to plan for a holiday in my home town.
Hints and tips
Talk to your exchange family! WhatsApp came in extremely handy to exchange useful info, tips and advice. This was a real success and definitely added to the feeling of living a Spanish life.
We swapped cars at the airport too which, while a little stressful in our case (there was a minor collision, a flat battery, a missing seatbelt and a car that threatened to fail us the day before the exchange), was still a sensible way to avoid transfers or hire cars.
We flew to: Girona with Ryanair
In Barcelona we stayed at: Hotel Ramblas
Our ebike tour was with: e-bikerent Barcelona