The Catalan Pyrenees from the summits to the sea
From the sandy beaches and coastal towns of Costa Brava to the snowy forests and towering peaks of Val d’Aran, Greentraveller’s bloggers Richard Hammond and Holly Rooke travelled with photographer Chris Willan through the wonderfully diverse landscapes of northern Catalonia into the Pyrenees. The trip was featured on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtags #CatalunyaExperience #Visitpirineus. Below are some of the highlights of the trip.
Watch our video of the trip:
1935 Hotel & Apartments
Our first night was a great introduction to Catalan cuisine. In our opinion, the food in Catalonia is as good as you’ll find anywhere. Here’s a taste of what was on offer: Salt cod fritters with red sweet peppers marmalade and lemon purée; Sautéed artichokes in garlic sauce with “Paletilla ibérica de cebo’; Lamb’s lettuce salad with apple, parmesan, walnuts and raisins; Rock octopus with teriyaki sauce, potatoes and mushrooms creamy parmentier, sesame and seaweed salad; Duck confit thigh with ratafia sauce, green apple and cardamom oil with powder of citrus. Yum!
Proclaimed by Dali to be “the most beautiful town in the world”, nowadays Cadaqués is a popular seaside bolthole for wealthy Barcelonians. But while holiday homes here go for a pricey sum, the town still retains its age-old charm with narrow, cobbled steep streets, white and blue buildings, and a wonderful sweeping waterfront.
Castelfollit de la Roca
Perched atop a 50m-high crag, originally formed by lava flows thousands of years ago, this small village is a spectacular sight from a distance, even more so against a backdrop of the brilliant morning light. We ambled around the town in the sunshine stopping to climb the bell tower of the 13th-century Sant Salvador church with wonderful view of the town’s jumble of terracotta roofs snaking down the outcrop and into the distant hills.
At the entrance to this well-preserved town is the magnificent Romanesque bridge, whose seven arches and two gated towers span the Fluvià river (Besalú means ‘fort on a mountain between two rivers’ – the other river, the Capellades, flows to the north).
At the far end of the Besalú bridge, ancient cobbles lead off into a maze of meandering streets lined with shops selling all sorts of handicrafts and produce. Poking our heads through the door of one we're met with the warming aroma of fragrant herbs and spices, the walls of the stamp-sized shop stocked to the rafters with teas and coffees; in another, local hams hang in the window and rounds of cheese jostle for space on the counter below. The famous mikveh (Jewish bath), with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, is incredibly well preserved despite its 900-year history – forgotten for centuries, it was only rediscovered in the 1960s during construction on a neighbouring building.
On the outskirts of the natural park, approximately 16km west of Santa Pau, the 14th-century Mas Garganta is run by the affable Inis. There are 12 simple, comfortable bedrooms at the ‘casa rural’, a wonderful farmhouse kitchen with huge fireplace, a lovely pool, and mountain views from every angle. Despite the evening chill and the roaring fire indoors, we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the valley views and instead sat out on the terrace feasting late into the night.
Clip of the exterior of Mas Garganta:
Wandering around the virtually empty village (no cars permitted) had the feeling of being on a film set, with stone bridges spanning the river, houses with carved wooden balconies and photo opportunities at every corner. We had a stroll around the Sant Cristòfol church – a typical 12th-century Romanesque church with a wonderful 2.7m-high wooden carving and a four-storey bell tower.
Zoo del Pirineu
Nestled high in the mountains outside Cabrils, Zoo del Pirineu is a sanctuary for injured, mistreated or abandoned animals. After coffee and entrepà de truita (huge baguettes filled with hot omelette), we met the director, Stania Kuspertova, who moved to Catalonia from the Czech Republic and set up the project with her family. As well as making it a fun place to visit, Stania is committed to using the site to educate visitors on the local environment, and all the residents at the zoo – from a young and very friendly deer called (of course) Bambi, to an impressive collection of owls, vultures and eagles – are native to the Pyrenees. While we were there, we witnessed some of their birds of prey flying overhead, a spectacular sight that was made even more impressive by the dramatic mountainous backdrop and the wild vultures circling overhead.
Dogsledding in Val d’Aran
The sight of perfectly white snow is exciting at any time, but perhaps no more so than when you're about to be hurtling through it behind twelve huskies. Near a ski resort in Val d’Aran, Montgarri Outdoor offer dogsledding trips to those wanting to explore the wintry landscape without strapping on skis. Right at the beginning of December, we were the dogs' first outing of the winter, and, after training all summer, their enthusiasm was matched only by that of the musher and self-proclaimed ‘alpha of the pack’, Marc. The cacophony of barks ceased as soon as the running began and, as we glided silently into the Narnia-like forest, Marc’s love of the activity was easy to understand.
Vall de Boí
This beautiful church, in the tiny village of Taüll in the Vall de Boí, a narrow valley in Lleida province, is one of nine similar churches in the valley, the highest concentration of Romanesque architecture to be found anywhere in Europe. Inside the building is a magnificent piece of Catalan Romanesque painting, a copy of the original which is on display in the National Museum of Catalan Art.
Our final days in Catalonia were spent walking a section of El Cinquè Llac (‘the Fifth Lake’), a five-day hiking route between tiny villages and around unimaginably beautiful lakes in the foothills of the Pyrenees. An impressive example of sustainable tourism, the money generated by the scheme is being used to protect and conserve the local area, funding projects such as the restoration of traditional dry-stone walls and investment in local food producers. Núria, Mireia and Ramon, some of the organisers behind the enterprise, showed us their highlights of the route, and took us for a traditional picnic lunch beside the eponymous fifth lake, which walkers reach on their last day.
As well as the scenery, the route is impressive for the way it allows visitors to connect with the landscape and the history of the region. One notable example of this is the shepherd’s staff, which, given to all walkers on arrival, is then marked each night to signify the completion of that day’s walking. Ramon explained to me that, as the paths travelled by the hikers are traditionally shepherd’s paths, the staff is “a way to connect visitors to the reality of the territory, and to give them an insight into its history and traditions”. While walking the route, we were lucky enough to meet Josep, one of the last shepherds in the area still using traditional farming methods, who gave us a perfect demonstration of the staff in action.
Compiled by Richard Hammond and Holly Rooke with additional research by Florence Fortnam.
Disclosure: Richard Hammond, Holly Rooke and Chris Willan were guests of the Catalan Tourist Board. Richard and Holly had full editorial control of the review, which is written in their own words based on their experience of visiting Catalonia in the winter of 2017. All opinions are the authors' own.