If there’s one thing for sure, the French enjoy their holidays. Particularly in May. It feels like France has a holiday every other week in May, and maybe that’s because it does. There’s May Day (Labor Day) on May 1, WWII Victory Day on May 8, Ascension Day on May 13, Whit Monday on May 24, and last but not least, Mother’s Day on May 30. The first four are public holidays, which the French take very seriously.
But there’s one striking difference in how the French take their holidays from the United States. In the US, if a public holiday falls on the weekend, it is typically recognized on the following Monday. Say yes to short work weeks! But in France, if the holiday falls on a weekend, they do not recognize the holiday during the following work week. The French just lose an extra day off from work.
Last year, 2020, was a golden year for the May holidays. Both May Day and WWII Victory Day fell on a Friday, meaning a free three-day weekend. We didn’t get to take these holidays because we were in the first lockdown, which strategically ended the Monday after WWII Victory Day. As luck has it, these two holidays fell on a Saturday this year, meaning two regular weekends for us.
But there is still hope for a long weekend, and that lies with Ascension Day, a religious holiday (and a public holiday in France) celebrated forty days after Easter, or “Pâques.” The holiday always falls on a Thursday, so the day off is a guarantee. But what’s the benefit if you don’t get a long weekend out of it? The French have a solution for this.
It’s called “faire le pont,” which translates “to bridge the gap.”
When a holiday falls two days on either side of the weekend (Tuesday or Thursday), the French will “faire le pont” and take Monday or Friday off to have a long weekend. Now that’s what I’m talking about; I’ll take a four-day weekend!
When Ascension Day came around this year, France still had a 7:00 pm curfew, and shops and restaurants remained closed. There would not be much to do in France, but we did not want to miss out on a long weekend. We looked up European countries allowing tourists and learned we could “faire le pont” to Barcelona for the long weekend!
Spain had loosened its restrictions the week we planned to go. The only requirement we needed to enter into Spain from France was a negative PCR test. As we are both vaccinated, this wouldn’t be a problem. The country had no curfew enforced and allowed restaurants to stay open until 11:00 pm. If you’ve been to Spain, you know that they like to eat very late in the evening. I’m sure the 11:00 pm closing time was seen by many as a crime, but it would be perfect for us. Just the fact that restaurants were open is a good sign! On our last night in Barcelona, the police even had to disperse over 9,000 people who were partying in the streets after 11:00 pm when everything shut down. Don’t worry; we were back in the hotel by then. It was also the first week that Spain allowed travel between its various regions. The Spaniards were ready to be outside!
We booked a direct train from Lyon to Barcelona after work. Direct trains mean that there are still stops along the way, but we don’t have to change trains to get to our destination. The train would take five hours in total, which isn’t too bad considering we could sit back and relax along the way. We booked first-class tickets as they would give us more room to spread out. They were only a few Euros more expensive than second class.
After we arrived in Barcelona, we bought our train passes for the weekend and set off to the hotel. Jordan had traveled to Barcelona for work for ten days in April and learned from a coworker that different colored kiosks sell tickets at the station. At different prices, too! Right after getting off our train, we came across orange kiosks. These were regional station kiosks that would sell you a 96-hour pass, unknowingly to many at a higher price. To save on costs, we took an escalator downstairs near the metro line entrance. These kiosks sold the same 96-hour ticket we needed at a lower price. Had we not had the inside scoop from his coworker, we would have never known the difference.
Jordan and I took advantage of our stockpile of hotel points to splurge a little on our first trip since the Maldives during Christmas. We booked a five-star hotel at the Kimpton Vividora Hotel, located in the gothic quarter of Barcelona. Between you and me, I’m not sure I could tell the difference between a five-star hotel room and the Holiday Inn Express rooms we usually book. The main difference was the hotel offered a complimentary robe to wear during our stay. It was heavenly. Afterward, I immediately put a bathrobe on my birthday list.
The best part about our trip to Barcelona is that we had both traveled there previously. A couple of friends from college and I went on a girl’s trip in 2015, and Jordan just went to Barcelona in April. We could have a relaxing trip and not try to cram all the sights into long days. Our only plans were dinner reservations, leaving the entire day open to do as we liked.
We started our Thursday morning with chocolate croissants and coffee for breakfast from a local bakery. There were no benches or tables nearby, so we sat down on a cement block whose primary purpose was to stop cars from driving into the pedestrian area. After my first bite, I realized the Spanish may have a different interpretation of chocolate croissants.
Instead of a bit of chocolate cooked inside the pastry as the French do, these croissants had each end dipped in chocolate. The chocolate was thick. It tasted like a chocolate glaze found on Krispy Creme donuts. It wasn’t bad, but it was a little too rich for my taste. As I think back, the entire thing felt like I was eating a donut instead of a croissant. Maybe it was a cronut in disguise?
After finishing breakfast, we took the metro to a COVID testing station. Not only did we need a negative test to enter Spain, but we also needed one to get back into France. The tests are valid for 72 hours; by taking our test Thursday, we could travel home Sunday with no disruption.
Jordan had previously gone to this testing station when traveling for work and prebooked our appointments online. Unlike in France, the COVID tests were not free. We each had to pay 100 Euros but rationalized the steep price was worth it to allow us to travel. By the time we left the testing station, there was a huge line out the door. Everyone else must have had the same idea as us.
Now that this part was over, let the fun begin!
We filled our weekend with sand, sunshine, and sangria (and tapas, too). Friends have asked what my favorite French food is, and it’s hard to come up with something other than how much I love the baguette. When it comes to Spanish food, I have a hard time choosing just one! There’s patatas bravas, similar to home fries with a side of garlic aioli sauce. There’s also Iberian ham, thinly sliced and delicate. But my new favorite dish is the pa amb tomàquet. This translates to “bread with tomato.”
The pa amb tomàquet is a Catalonian dish made with five simple ingredients: bread, garlic, tomato, olive oil, and salt. Simple but delicious. Jordan and I found this tapa on the menu for most restaurants we ate at in Barcelona. The restaurants brought all the ingredients right to the table, and it was like a do-it-yourself tapa. We thought this was a fun way to try a local dish and learn how to replicate it at home.
Here’s how to make this famous dish on your own:
- Start with a slice of toasted bread and a garlic clove.
- Peel half of the garlic clove, and rub it all over the top of the bread. This step will give your bread the garlic flavor without any chunks of garlic. And by only peeling half, you won’t get your fingers sticky!
- Cut a fresh tomato in half and rub the open end of the tomato all over the bread. Make sure to get some of the pulp from the tomato on your slice!
- After this, drizzle a little bit of olive oil on the bread and top it with a dash of salt.
Viola! You have yourself traditional (and delicious) pa amb tomàquet.
Many restaurants were offering post-COVID deals to bring in diners. The prices were very reasonable for the amount of food we ate. Our favorite restaurant we tried was Braseria Piras. The restaurant immediately won me over with their American 90’s music softly playing over the speakers the entire night. This restaurant offered a fantastic deal: for 25 Euros a person, we could have a starter, appetizers (at least seven full-size tapas), a grilled meat sampler (five different types of meat), dessert, and a glass of wine. The meal started with the traditional tomato bread and a bowl of olives, which we enjoyed not knowing how much food was about to appear on the table.
The tapas came out one by one and included hummus, grilled asparagus, prawns, and more. These plates could have easily been the meal itself, and my favorite was the asparagus. As we were ready to throw in the towel, we remembered we were only halfway through the meal. The remainder of our tapas were removed from the table and replaced with a giant plate topped with various slices of grilled meat. We savored every bite, as each type of meat was better than the last. Unfortunately for us, there were no wheelbarrows to help wheel us home after enjoying many delicious plates.
The rest of the trip was spent exploring Barcelona and seeing some of the work by famous artist Antoni Gaudi. You may know Gaudi’s career from his intricate and colorful mosaics considered Catalan modernism. One of the most famous places in Barcelona is Park Güell, one of the largest green spaces in Barcelona. The park sits high on a hill overlooking the city and provides expansive views of the city and ocean. There is also La Sagrada Familia, which has been under construction since 1882, as well as Casa Mila and Casa Batlló, located right in the heart of the city. I had seen all of these on my previous trip, but it was fun to take Jordan around to experience them himself.
On our last day in Barcelona, we decided to treat ourselves to a day on the beach. As we traveled from Lyon to Barcelona by train, we could pack our beach towels and not worry about them taking up luggage space. Our French teacher told us the ocean would be warm in May, so we thought we would give it a try. We dipped our toes in the water and immediately regretted the decision. The water was freezing! We knew that we had to dive right in.
On the count of three, we both ran and dove into the ocean. The water felt like shards of ice stabbing us. It was cold. But after a few minutes, when our bodies were numb, the water didn’t seem so bad. Maybe there was a reason only kids were swimming. We could only handle a few minutes of the water before getting out and vowing not to get back in.
Along the shore, by our towels, were various shells and colorful sea glass. I like collecting sea glass when we can find it, and it was everywhere. As a fun fact, did you know the beaches in Barcelona are man-made? Now a staple, they did not exist before the city hosted the Olympics in 1992. Before we left, we gathered a small handful of sea glass in different blue, green, and even yellow hues to take home.
After a fun few days with no curfew, it was time to head back to France. Our train left early Sunday morning, and we would get back to Lyon in the afternoon. At the first stop in France, our train was delayed as the police came on board to check that everyone had a negative PCR test. When the train finally left, we saw about twenty people standing on the platform by the police. The passengers had been kicked off the train because they did not have tests to show! While getting a PCR test on vacation was annoying, it was only a minor inconvenience compared to what these passengers experienced.
Thanks for sticking around to read about how we experienced our first “faire le pont.” We are going at full speed ahead and stay tuned for more about our recent trips to the south of France and Portugal.