Monday 24 October 2016

Catalonia: The time traveller's life in Spain

Foot, bike & hot-air balloon

Sophie White

Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30

Great outdoors: Spain's Costa Brava, which runs from just north of Barcelona to the French border, boasts plenty of rocky outcrops and quiet coves - hiking is a good way to explore it
Great outdoors: Spain's Costa Brava, which runs from just north of Barcelona to the French border, boasts plenty of rocky outcrops and quiet coves - hiking is a good way to explore it
Via Verde routes are perfect for families.
Cal Sastre
Volcano park

Sophie White travels by foot, bike & hot-air balloon with Adventure Holidays in Catalonia.

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Too often, travelling can become about squeezing as much in as possible.

We rush from place to place to get the boxes ticked, to snap the picture-perfect sunset and to hit the next scenic spot. Sometimes it can feel like we're, well, acquiring experiences rather than experiencing them. The answer is simple of course: slow down. Get off the tour bus or out of the rental car and step off the beaten track.

For my recent tour of Catalonia, Northern Spain, with Irish tour operator Adventure Holidays, we did just that. After the initial transfer from Girona Airport to just south of the Pyrenees we barely had to endure a car for the next four days. We travelled by foot, bicycle and even hot air balloon to drink in the stunning region. 

On that first evening as we headed down the Roman Road at Sant Pau de Segúries towards our first hotel of the trip, Cole Porter's words ambled through my mind "Give me land, lots of land. . . and don't fence me in."

Cheesy as it sounds, it felt a bit like time-travelling as we made our way over the 2,000-year-old cobbled pathways. In the dwindling light, from our high vantage point, we could see across the entire volcanic region of La Garrotxa to the sea beyond, where we would spend the next few days hiking, biking - and time-travelling.

That first day's gentle downhill hike was kind to us, though we still managed a hearty feed after checking in to the Hotel Rural Can Blanc, which was to be our base for the next two nights. The family-run hotel complete with charming rooms and a tree-shaded swimming pool and terrace is set in the peaceful forest surrounding the town of Olot. Tucked away in the forest I slept the (admittedly barely-earned) sleep of a trail-worn explorer.

The next morning our trip took a turn for the decidedly more intrepid when we set out before light to travel in a hot air balloon over the 40-odd volcanoes of La Garrotxa. It was a civilised affair befitting Phileas Fogg himself, with Cava to drink and delicious almond cake to eat as we enjoyed the view and the frankly surreal sensation of wind-propelled travel.

Volcano park
Volcano park

We'd arrived at Vol de Coloms early and had time to inspect the two balloons as they lay in a huge field. To me they just looked so implausible as a mode of transport, like a circus tent about to take off. Perhaps because of this I didn't even think to get frightened until standing in my balloon's basket and watching the other balloon's passengers. As they took off I remember thinking, "Jesus I wouldn't want to be doing that" - quite clearly forgetting where I myself was standing.

"That flame thing near all the hydrogen and canvas just doesn't seem like a good idea," I said to my basket-mate just as the flames flared above my head and the balloon, the basket and I began drifting skyward.

The take-off was magic. As a biped, most of the flying I get to do is accompanied by screaming engines, screaming babies and screaming flight attendants. Here at last I was experiencing the eerie beauty of flying in perfect stillness. Add the early morning Cava and I was totally intoxicated. I almost had to consciously stop myself from leaping out of the balloon with the sheer giddiness of it all.

There was a seductive, dream-like quality to the whole experience. The air was still, the wind barely perceptible as it propelled us, and far, far below us lay a perfect miniature landscape dotted with volcanoes overlaid with a quilt of forest that looked like the softest landing imaginable. Dangerously intoxicating.

Our pilot, it seemed, had developed immunity to the heady effects of the hot air balloon and was able to tell us all about the volcanoes of the region, while at the same time topping up the Cava and making sporadic adjustments to our altitude with the flame-thrower contraption. On that crisp morning, mist had settled in each crater, giving the whole place a kind of 'Misty Mountains Lord of the Rings' vibe.

Landing a hot air balloon is a fairly thrilling experience, not least because at one point our pilot climbed out of the basket and hung on to the sides with his bare hands as we drifted across a field, grazing the tips of the corn while his feet trailed behind him. A more compelling and attractive man I'd never seen before - since his balloon-landing exploits, anyway. Eventually he and a few of his helpers on the ground guided us to a stop.

Via Verde routes are perfect for families.
Via Verde routes are perfect for families.

After our flight we joined the pilot (I nabbed the seat beside him, natch) for a banquet breakfast. Cured Catalan meats, cheeses, tomatoes and crusty bread with olive oil to start. This was followed by a dish of the region, spicy sausages with oily white beans - simple and immensely satisfying. There was wine, even though it was technically still breakfast, and yoghurt for dessert. I may have to move there.

A brief stop back at the hotel to change, and the bipeds were off again, this time by bike. For me the main attraction of the region, apart from the food and balloon pilots, was the gentle, largely downhill walking and biking trails. There is loads of scope for those seeking a more demanding itinerary but as these days I normally travel with a rowdy child in tow, I'm always looking for the adventure trips that are child-friendly, something that Adventure Holidays specialise in.

Our bike trip took us to Amer along the Via Verda (the Green way). The largely downhill, former railway line wends through small villages, open fields and wooded areas. After a couple of hours cycling in the sunshine it was time to lounge poolside. As I nursed a beer in the late afternoon sun, I reflected that, despite having visited Spain many times, to me this was a completely new side to the country. It was a joy ambling through this lush green land of valleys and incongruous green craters, a far cry from the jetskis, mopeds and bustle of the beach resorts.

That evening we visited the beautiful Santa Pau, a former feudal town dating from the 1200s. Here we ate a stunning six-course dinner in the Restaurant Cal Sastre, which would be worth a 200-mile detour in a hot air balloon even if you were dangling over the side holding on with your bare hands.

The next morning we checked out of our woodland hideaway, and while our bags went by car we set out on foot for the little town of Tamariu by the sea. With our Catalan guide, we struck out for a few hours' walk on the quiet trail that connects a series of beautifully preserved medieval towns such as La Peralada where we saw the communal olive press, used by the townspeople to make their own supplies of olive oil, and vines adorning stone streets that still bear the deep grooves of old carts used in Roman times.

At lunch, our driver met us in Pals and ferried us a few minutes down the road to Begur, where wine and pasta and ice cream fortified us for our next leg - a short hike through forest to our final destination, Tamariu. After settling into a room overlooking the sea at Hotel Tamariu, it was time to explore. The tiny town of pretty, whitewashed houses is nestled in a snug cove with one beach and high cliffs on either side. A man-made stone diving board juts out from the rocks to one side and offers a short sharp shock of cold water for those who prefer not to inch in from the beach. I took the short, sharp shock route, a welcome blast of cool water after the exertion and heat of the day.

A dinner of pork with nuts and boozy sauce was followed by bed for my weary body.

The next day we bid a reluctant goodbye to Tamariu. After breakfast we walked to the edge of the beach and scrambled up a narrow rocky path that clung to the cliffs as we rounded the headland into the morning sun.

After a couple of hours picking our way along the path high above the crashing waves, we found ourselves at Cala Pedrosa, a secret beach of pebbles. At this point we turned inland and upward and left the glittering blue ocean behind. A steep climb through coastal forest led us to an impressive lighthouse, San Sebastian - and much-needed espresso.

Reunited with our driver and luggage, we drove to Girona for a final stroll through the cobbled streets of this beautiful city, taking in the grand churches, medieval baths and the labyrinthine Call (medieval Jewish quarter). Girona's architecture, food scene and the eclectic interiors and art boutiques deserve more time than we had on this occasion. The subsequent dash to the airport was enough to abruptly wrench us back to the present (with much regret) after our other-worldly few days time-travelling in beguiling Catalonia.

Getting there

Adventure Holidays offers a range of walking, cycling and family holidays to Catalonia. For more information or to book see, email, or call (01) 259 0133.

Ryanair has flights to Girona from April to September, while both Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly Dublin to Barcelona year round. Find out more about the area from the following websites:, or,

Also, see Twitter: @SpaininIreland

Take three...

La Via Verda

There are more than 2,200km of Via Verda all over Spain offering a unique, beautiful and safe way to experience the landscape. The routes are not technically difficult and are therefore perfect for families. Routes are punctuated with panels and signposts highlighting points of interest along the way. Adventure Holidays offers fully supported holidays with bike hire and luggage transfers, leaving families free to enjoy the trails.

Restaurant Cal Sastre

This restaurant has been in the family for generations - as the collection of idiosyncratic gewgaws and old family snaps papering the walls attest. My highlight was a delicate cannelloni stuffed with sausage and truffle sauce. The wine was excellent and our hosts were thrilled when we demanded a tour of their cellar. Or at least they pretended convincingly when we trooped down at midnight to inspect an impressive collection of vino.

La Garrotxa Park

La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, which contains about 40 volcanoes, is considered to be inactive, with the last eruption occurring about 11,000 years ago, though the area has seen seismic action as recently as 1428 when an earthquake hit, claiming lives and buildings as far away as Barcelona (nearly 100km away). In one crater there is even a church, the Hermitage Santa Margarida - a gutsy piece of architecture right there.

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