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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The Ruins of Empuries
River frontage, Girona
The old bridge at Oix
Walking near Santa Pau
Village of Beget
Pyrenees and Costa Brava