For many people Barcelona IS Spain. It is cosmopolitan and stylish with great restaurants and bars, a wealth of museums and the world's smoothest pickpockets. It has a hectic nightlife in which people dine at eleven and party till four.

Our favourite recollections include a stroll along the tree lined pedestrian plaza of las Ramblas with a detour to poke around the la Boqueria market and exploring the Barri Gotic or medieaval old town.

And then there is the wonderful legacy of Gaudí from the still unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, to the meticulously maintained residential buildings (the best part of which are the rooftops) and to the bizarre Park Guell overlooking the city.

One of the most splendid experiences of all is a visit to the Palau de la Musica Catalana, built for the Orfeo Catala musical society. Here a colourful confection of mosaics, tiled pillars, floral capitals and stained glass fill the foyers and surround the auditorium. There are many performances throughout the year but nothing can beat the spine chilling concerts of the unaccompanied Orfeo in such superb surroundings.
Leaving Barcelona we drove north towards the mountains and made a base for a few days in Ripoll which is an attractive small town, little touched by tourism. It is most famous for its romanesque Benedictine Abbey, Santa Maria de Ripoll, founded round the 9th century by Wilfred the Hairy. Here there is an enchanting cloister and a splendid 12th century carved portal around and above the main entrance to the abbey church, now protected from the elements by a wall of glass.

Nearby is the little town of Sant Joan de les Abadesses with a monastery also founded by Wilfred. The town has a very fine medieval bridge.

Wilfred is credited with having created Catalunya and is an important figure in Catalan nationalism.
The Catalan Pyrenees
A rack railway runs from nearby Queralbs in the foothills of the Pyrenees up to the ski resort of the Vall de Núria where green meadows spread around a mountain lake circled by spiky and peaks. There is a small chapel here, marking the spot where a certain Saint Giles lived in a cave for a time round 700 AD. He was said to have hidden some odds and ends, including a wooden image of the virgin, in a cave. These were found some 300 years later by a pilgrim who marked the significance of the place by building the chapel.
Núria is a low key ski resort but is also a popular place for trekking with well marked trails heading up into the mountains. Our visit coincided with a cold snap and some late snow, so walking any further afield than the resort pathways was impossible. But there is a trail back down to Queralbs that we were able to follow, meandering alongside the railway through a deep gorge where the Ria Nuria rushed downhill over a rocky base.
Old Bridge, Sant Joan de les Abadesses
From Ripoll we moved on to the busy market town of Olot a short distance away. Around its Placa Major are interesting narrow streets with attention-grabbing little shops, art galleries and cafes. Listening to conversations we realised we were hearing pure Catalan. Always keen to tune in to the language of a place we caused some amusement in a book shop when we bought a Catalan/English dictionary. It was a useful purchase if only for its academic interest.

During the 18th century, Olot had a thriving textile industry leading to the emergence of a school of art known as the Olot School, founded by a group of local artists during the late 19th century. The connection between textiles and art came from the colourful decoration of the locally produced fabrics. In the Museu Comarcal de la Garrotxa many of the works produced by the Olot School can be seen. It is a diverse range of paintings and sculptures.
Geographically and geologically Olot is a fascinating place, situated in an area known as the Volcanic Region of Garrotxa. There are some 40 extinct volcanos, some extraordinary lava flows and a great diversity of vegetation, including dense beech forests. While the last volcanic eruption was 11,000 years ago the area is still considered to be seismically unstable and subject to earthquakes, the last having occurred in 1427. The Casal dels Volcans (House of Volcanoes), outlines the volcanic history of the town and region and is worth a visit for those with a passion for geological pasts.
All around the area there are well documented walking routes built upon the extensive network of pathways that once linked farms, churches and villages. This is agreeable and easy walking and we spent two days exploring some of its best.
One day we strolled through beech forests in the volcano country and found the mediaeval village of Santa Pau, perched on a rocky outcrop. The oldest part of the village is a medieval enclosure built inside the gothic church of Santa Maria which was built in the 15th century. There is also a castle.
Another day we explored around the little mountain town of Oix. It is surrounded by high cliffs and boasts a restored castle and an ancient Romanesque church with a renaissance altar piece. Nearby is an old Romanesque bridge.
The concentration of Romanesque architecture in this area was a pure delight. In Ripoll we picked up a brochure which detailed the treasures to be found in the surrounding countryside. Aside from Santa Pau and Oix, which we came across on our walks, we made also excursions to the villages of Beget and Besalú.
Beget is dominated by the Romanesque church of Sant Cristofor which houses a beautiful carved wooden altar piece that is one of the most beautiful Romanesque carvings in Catalonia. Besalú, is a maze of cobbled streets and is entered via a magnificent 12th century seven arched bridge.
The Costa Brava
With the distant views of the snow capped Pyrenees slowly receding, it is a short journey, through "Dali territory" and the town of Figueras, to the highly developed Costa Brava.

The town of Cadaques, on the Cap de Creus makes a good base although it can be extremely crowded in the peak holiday seasons. Begur, a little further south is less hectic. We had previously visited Cadaques on a day's excursion from Collioure in France, and were keen to spend more time there.
Once a rundown fishing village that was accessible only by sea, Cadaques is now a busy town with many restaurants, hotels and bars. But leave behind the hustle and bustle of holiday makers in the main square, and Cadaques maintains the charm that attracted Salvador Dali and many other artists including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Man Ray, Max Ernst, and André Derain.
The town is a dazzling cascade of white buildings with a rugged mountain backdrop. Along the rocky beaches are colourful small boats screaming at you to photograph them.
There are many walks through the Cap de Creus Peninsular, either taking in the rugged terrain around the village or heading up into the mountains behind. Along the coast there are quiet deserted beaches and you can rent a dinghy to discover the isolated bays along the coastline.
A short walk along the rocks, around the corner from Cadaqués is Port Lliga. Dalí's home is nowadays open as a museum and a fascinating homage to the man and Gala his lifelong love. You can easily see how Dali was influenced by the scenery and light and even make out some of the rocky images that appear in his paintings.
We spent a day walking round the Cap de Creus. The steep hillsides here were covered with purple cistus, thyme and lavender and there were magic views to the ocean in one direction and the distant mountains in the other. But, as can be found in some parts of Spain, the tracks were hard to follow and difficult to negotiate. We realised quickly that walking is not the most important or popular activity round here. Hedonistic seaside activity is more the go.
Just to the north of Cadaqués is Port de la Selva, another fishing village transformed into a popular holiday destination. It sits in a semicircular bay and has an attractive seafront promenade lined with restaurants. Up in the hills behind Selva is the Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes. A monumental example of the Catalan Romanesque period, it rises from a slope high up on the mountainside and commands a spectacular view of the town and the bay. Across the border in Catalan France are the eastern Pyrenees, Mount Canigou and the pretty seaside town Collioure.
Further to the south of Cadaquès is the Golfo de Rosas. The flat land here is the flood plain formed by the rivers that flow down from around Ripoll. At the far southern end of the bay is the small resort town of Begur which is a good base for further exploration. The town centre is on a hilltop and sinuous narrow roads find their way down to little inlets and beaches where the water is clear and 'acqua', and the names of Aiguafreda, Aiguablava seem highly appropriate.
The landscape here is again hilly - challenging for walking and driving but quite attractive if eyes can be closed to the gross development on some of the hillsides. A day or so walking in this coastal environment can be very agreeable though it's in stark contrast to the open spaces of the mountains.
One is the fascinating Greek/Roman city of Empuries. In a beautiful location overlooking the sea, Empuries was founded in 575 BC by Greek colonists from Phocaea. It rapidly became one of antiquity's most important commercial ports of the Mediterranean. It was later occupied by the Romans but in the Early Middle Ages, when its exposed coastal position left it open to marauders, the town was abandoned. Excavations in Empúries began in 1908 and continue today. It is a peaceful and fascinating place to wander around.
Before leaving this part of Catalonia there are some non-walking sites that you really ought to visit.
For something quite different there is the city of Girona with its monumental cathedral, ancient fortifications and pastel coloured houses along the River Onyar.

Then for Dali admirers there is his museum in Figueras.
Gorge, Vall de Núria
Vall de Núria
The Bridge, Besalú
View of Besalú
Fishing boats, Port Lligat
Path to Aiguafreda
Beach, Aiguafreda
The Ruins of Empuries
River frontage, Girona
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The old bridge at Oix
Walking near Santa Pau
Village of Beget
Pyrenees and Costa Brava
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