Spread your wings beyond Barcelona
Leave the city behind and explore the fascinating Catalan towns and villages within easy reach, where you’ll find culture andgastronomy at every turn
The city of Girona. Photographs: Getty Images
Begur village and castle at dusk
One can get lazy in Spain, especially if you’re in Barcelona. The city offers so much that it sometimes feels as though too much extra effort would be required to venture out into the country instead of skipping along La Rambla.
But head for the hills and towns of Catalonia, and the richness of its landscape and culture informs a much clearer picture of what influences the art and cuisine of this fiercely proud region of Spain, hugging the Pyrenees to its north and the Mediterranean to the east.
Looking outwards from the city, Monteserrat is a good place to start. Less than an hour on the train from Barcelona, if you can’t be bothered with car hire, a huge alien mountain greets you, like a badly set sedimentary jelly mold. Should you possess calves of steel, you can cycle up the winding mountain road to the Benedictine Abbey (and embrace in the courtyard, as I saw two vaguely traumatised cyclists do post-vertical-ascent), or alternatively drive up, and hop on the terrifyingly steep funicular railway to the top. The Abbey holds the shrine of Santa Maria de Montserrat, or the “black Madonna”, replicated to Knock-levels of kitsch in the gift shop. It’s also home to one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe, who perform every day in the cathedral, like angelic penguins with their white robes and high register.
You can add Montserrat to the list of places where people think the Holy Grail is located, but the real treasure is hanging in an art gallery here, which is well worth the €6.50 entry charge. Paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Le Corbusier, Miró, Monet and even Caravaggio populate the museum almost casually. The newest acquisition is an Irishman’s work: take a bow, Sean Scully.
North of Barcelona, Figueres is home to one of the best and most bizarre museums in the world, the Dalí Theatre and Museum. This is Salvador’s home town, and when the original theatre was bombed into ruin during the Civil War, Dalí and the mayor got to work in 1960, opening what is now the largest piece of surrealist art in the world a decade and a half later. Works by El Greco and Duchamp are also housed here, but it’s Dalí’s brilliant and bonkers vision that makes this place fizz. You could spend hours here, down a rabbit hole of opera-singing cars, giant pixelated Abraham Lincolns, hologram-like projections, furniture, jewellery and paintings.
In the 18th century, young folk from Begur (an hour north of Barcelona) set out to find their fortune in Cuba. Many returned to build large colonial houses, with balconies, patios, landscaped gardens and murals of the Caribbean island painted on the terrace walls. The crumbling Latin American homes give the town an exotic vibe.
For nearly six centuries the Costa Brava suffered repeated pirate attacks, but Begur’s slightly hidden location and 11 defensive towers protected it from attack: only seven of the towers remain, and they aren’t much defense in summer when the population swells from 4,000 to 13,000 as outsiders descend on the trendy town for its cool restaurants (with an emphasis on slow food), natty boutique hotels and medieval castle with spectacular views out to sea.
Into hidden gem territory now, and the tiny medieval village of Santa Pau in the Garrotxa region of Girona makes for a stunning lunchtime stopover. At Cal Sastre restaurant, you only need to utter two words before being transported into food bliss: duck cannelloni. Cal Sastre merges traditional cuisine such as the omnipresent Crema Catalana and slow-cooked veal cheeks, with contemporary flourishes; olives encased in Martini jelly, and chocolate covered pâté lollipops. Eighty per cent of the food is sourced from within 15km of the 11th century village, and boy does it taste good.
Most people know Girona as the location for a Ryanair-serviced airport, which is a bit of a rubbish claim to fame when a city is as cool as this one is. The Onyar river’s banks are stacked high with old buildings on the fringe of this Roman city, just half an hour on the train from Barcelona. Girona’s outskirts aren’t up to much, but the hilly historical centre is great. Cedar trees line the parks, old churches jostle for attention, none more so than the imposing baroque cathedral where Sean Scully pops up again, this time in the stained glass. The most magical area though, is the old Jewish quarter. At night, the dim yellow street lights bounce off the cobbles, and wandering through narrow passages, archways and down age-smoothed steps feels brilliantly mysterious.
Girona’s university is spread across several campuses and adds extra buzz to the town, with several bars and cafes spreading out underneath porticos.
On your Catalonian jaunt, you’ll need somewhere classy to crash, and the region’s network of Paradores offers a fine alternative to anonymous hotels or sparse holiday apartments. Paradores are State-maintained buildings in fortresses, castles, and modern buildings often in spectacular, sometimes slightly off-the-beaten track locations. A breathtaking ninth century castle in Cardona is a smashing example of how unique these hotels can be. The Parador at Vic-Sau is lined with balconies and overlooks the Sau reservoir on the Ter river, where the church steeple of Santa Romà peaks over the waterline, indicating the town that was flooded to create the reservoir. At Punta D’es Muts, Parador Hotel Aiguablava is perched among pines above the waves crashing on the rocks below, with some great beaches and cliff walks surrounding it.
The system of rates per night in Paradores can be a little complicated, with discounts offered for everything from your age, to the day of the week you’re staying, but MAP Travel here in Ireland can advise and book from an exhaustive list, not just in Catalonia, but throughout Spain.
You can still base yourself in Barcelona, but spreading your Catalonian wings is well worth the effort.
Una Mullally travelled with MAP Travel and the Spanish Tourism Office
Getting there: Aer Lingus flies to Barcelona and Ryanair to Girona.
Staying there: Book Paradores by contacting MAP Travel (maptravel.ie)
Getting around: Trains from Barcelona make day trips easy, but for a proper ramble and for better access to the Paradores look into hiring a car in Barcelona.
Eating: You’ll be up to your oxters in Crema Catalana by the end of it, but the region’s tapas are some of the best in Spain, along with some excellent local white wines