Sunday 4 December 2016

Beyond Barcelona: A hiking, biking and ballooning adventure in Catalonia

Short breaks in Spain

Published 18/03/2016 | 15:41

Panoramic view of Olot, Garrotxa. Photo: Deposit
Panoramic view of Olot, Garrotxa. Photo: Deposit
Ballooning in Catalonia
Hiking in Garrotxa Natural Park
Hiking the coast in Catalonia
La cala i voltans, Catalonia
A cooking class in Girona
Camprodon, Spain
Vista nocturna de les cases de l'Onyar amb la catedral iluminada
Gironia. Photo: Deposit

There's more to Catalonia than its capital city, says Jane Last, who hikes and bikes her way through the region.

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Set the mood

Up, up, up and away!

I'm taking a hot air balloon trip some 2,300ft into the sky, gazing over a valley with some 40 extinct volcanoes, the last one having erupted some 11,000 years ago.

Welcome to Northern Spain - and an image about as far away from sun, sand and sangria as one can get.

Catalonia attracts some 18 million tourists every year, and of course the main draw is Barcelona - but do your research and you'll happily spend an action packed two weeks without ever setting foot in the capital.

From the foothills of the Pyrenees to Costa Brava coves and soaring views over La Garrotxa natural park, my multi-active trip was a treat.

Guilty pleasure

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A glass of a Prosecco in a hot air balloon is way up there - but I have to mention the food. I'm no foodie, but the gastronomical fare one is treated to when touring Catalonia is something to behold. .. we ate like kings.

I thought the best restaurants were in towns somewhat off the beaten track. We had dinner in Cal Sastre (calsastre.com) in Santa Pau one evening, for example - a restaurant housed in a building that dates back to the 13th century.

And if you overdo it at the table the night before - you can work it off the next day... that's the beauty of an active holiday!

Cheap kicks

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Where do you start?

Push bikes and walking tours are top. The region has opened up a major via verda (greenway) along the lines of an old railway system which shut in 1969.

The route runs downhill from Olot to Amer, with old train stations  turned into centres where passers-by can avail of free water and first aid if required. Handbikes are also available. See viesverdes.cat. for more info.

If the cycling is too much - take a hike. Literally. We spent half a day walking on a route that hugged the coast on our final day there. The route was used by smugglers during General Franco's reign - which lends to its fascination.

Top Tip

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Girona - where have you been? Ryanair have been flying to Girona for years - it's just a 35 minute train ride away from Barcelona.

Accommodation is cheaper, the university town is beautiful with cobbled streets and gorgeous Catalan romanesque architecture. They've even filmed Game of Thrones here!

Get there

Irish tour operator Adventure holidays (01 259-0133; adventure-holidays.ie) has a five-day 'Catalonia Walk Bike Hot Air Balloon' tour from €1,030pp.

The trip is an active one, with lots of walking and cycling, and accommodation in a mix of three and four-star hotels is included, as are four breakfasts, four dinners and packed lunches on two days. Feb-June and Sept/Nov are the best times to travel.

Airport transfers are included, but not flights. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies direct from Dublin Airport to Girona in Catalonia.

See spain.info for more to see and do in Spain.

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