It took three days before I had the nerve to take on Shambhala, Europe’s highest roller coaster, towering 249 feet above the vast Catalonian theme park of PortAventura.
It wasn’t the screams that scared me so much as the way this 5,131ft-long behemoth suddenly silenced its passengers when it dropped 256 feet down a 77 degree slope at almost 135 kilometers per hour.
People cheered on the way up, then shrieked later as the roller coaster roared through a bone-shaking helix, but for that moment rushing earthward the first time, held in by what seemed me little more than small, plastic cups, all they were capable of was a sort of guttural ‘whoof’.
That was my view of the situation from bustling ground level amid ten thousand gleeful holiday-makers in a park so vast that I thought it made Disneyland look like Bray seafront.
When I eventually found myself on Shambala’s breathtaking apex, about to ‘take the plunge’ as it were, I looked at the pension-age French stranger in the seat nearby hoping for some kindred horror. She looked at me, grinned, and I kid you not, popped her teeth out, tucked them away in her pocket, raised both hands in the air and shouted ‘hourra’ (‘yippee’, en Francais) and down we all went like a runaway freight elevator.
That was all to come. In the meantime, I decided, I would plan my approach, ruminate a little while luxuriating in some of the vast array of other distractions on offer around sunny, historic and food-fanatical Costa Dorada.
And you needn’t journey terribly far, if you can tear yourself away, that is, from southern Europe’s largest and most-visited park with its vast and distinctly different Mediterrania, Far West, Mexico, Asia and Polynesia themed areas, each with their own hotels, restaurants, shops, chill-out areas and, of course, terrifyingly thrilling rides. Ancient monasteries, vineyards and towns chock full of Roman ruins are just a short journey away.
Just a 20-minute walk from the gates of PortAventura is touristic Salou – and 14 minutes on from there is relaxing, low-rise Cambrils with its almost 200 restaurants.
Salou offers tapas and beer aplenty and you can finish off an evening there with a visit to the brilliant House of Illusions, where world-class magicians entertain you in the front lounge before you enter the theatre through a hidden bookcase and enjoy stage-side tables with complimentary house wine.
We’d never seen a person sawn in half, at least not, ahem, in the flesh, but that was just one part of an utterly hysterical, rapid-fire variety show worthy of Las Vegas but performed in the Victorian intimacy of a sitting-room size, living museum of the downright bizarre and unbelievable.
On the way back to our clean and functional in-park accommodation, we marveled at one of Salou’s two extraordinary dancing, musical fountains, which exploded with lasers and booming tunes, the perfect crescendo to a symphony of sights.
Next day, it was straight to the golf course at the nearby Mediterranea Beach and Golf Community. We’d never played golf either, but resident pro Andy Gordon made us believe we were naturals, using tens of thousands worth of military-grade radar equipment to improve our terrible swings.
As he took us on a tour of the beautiful golf resort by cart, once again I heard the roar and whoosh of that never-too-distant nemesis Shambhala. “Just you wait,” I grinned. “I’ll get to you yet.”
For lunch next day in Cambrils, the region’s seaside ‘foodie’ capital, we could probably have been blindfolded, spun around and pointed any direction and stumbled to a table for some gastronomic treat. Fish is the generally the order of the day and down on the shore the fishermen spread their nets near quays of boats that double for water tours in season. Not a fish fan? No a big deal. We ate in modern Club Nautic, overlooking a marina of bobbing boats while enjoying refreshing gazpacho (gaspatxo in Calalan), the province’s specialty chilled soup, before tucking in to fall-off-the-bone ox’s tail, all served up by a Michelin award-winning chef.
If you have your fill of glorious, golden beaches, promenades and restaurants shaded by palm trees straight out of Fantasy Island, all easily navigable by any one of the cheap rent-a-bikes that proliferate around these parts, then head inland.
At Poblet Monastery, resting place of countless Spanish Kings, we strolled through shady, ancient and hallowed hallways where the singing of monks still echoes to this day – there’s a modern-day community of them – before heading to the nearby winery there for a tasting session.
Rare clouds gathered dramatically overhead as we helped ourselves to a cheeky mid-morning tipple of their exceptionally rare Pinot Noir. There’s a micro-climate up here where the warm sea air meets the cooler mountains, meaning they can grow such grapes that would be difficult elsewhere in this region.
Onward to Taragonia for a guided tour of some of the grandest and most intact Roman ruins in southwestern Europe. Why? Because an emperor liked the place so much he had them build an entire city for him. Could it have been the wine? Or the way the thunder now grumbled as if to say – ‘Dude, you said you were going have a go on Europe’s highest rollercoaster. Now get goin’.’
No doubt, the former is the case – but the latter was by now a preoccupation, so I bade farewell to this ancient city where modern apartments and day-to-day commerce sit side by side amid the towering remnants of a temple and chariot stadium worthy of Rome.
Clouds parted on our descent from the high lands, as if a sign from the gods that it truly was time to pit myself against my two worst fears – heights and falling, at speed.
‘Hourra’ shrieked the toothless stranger, arms to the heavens in what may have been a Roman salute. ‘Aaaaaagh!’ was the nearest approximation I could find in my own language – at least the only thing printable and the rest was a glorious eight-ball to the eyeballs of pure, uncut adrenalin.
Staggering straight to the end of the queue again afterwards I found myself muttering, ‘Just one more go. Then we eat’.
In fact, PortAventura’s newest ride-junky would go six more rounds and still have the stomach to stuff his face. ‘Moltes grácies’, as they say around these parts. ‘Fins aviat!’
Thanks, PortAventura, and see you again soon.
- Ryanair has cheap, frequent flights from Dublin to Reus Barcelona, just a short distance from sunny Salou and PortAventura. http://www.ryanair.com
- PortAventura, the sixth most-visted theme park in all Europe, includes Costa Caribe Aquatic Park. It has four hotels and offers competitive, seasonal family rates as well as day passes. http://www.portaventura.co.uk
- Find out more about Salou, Cambrils, Poblet and Taragona and the many other tours and facilities available in the Coasta Dorada region of Catalonia at http://www.barcelona.com/barcelona_city_guide/catalonia/costa_dorada