Experience Cardona from a room with the ultimate view
From a 9th Century castle to a converted farmhouse, Denise Calnan takes in the region of Catalonia while staying at some of its specially selected hotels
Arriving at a new place after dark, it's always interesting to wake up the next morning and discover what picture your window frames.
This was a room with the ultimate view. Pulling back the curtains in my castle boudoir, the Catalonian town of Cardona lay basking in the morning sun before me. Rustic-looking shutters and dusty roads remained undisturbed as the sleepy town had yet to stir.
Cardona Castle is one of Spain's paradores, the country's carefully selected network of hotels, all in buildings or locations intrinsic to the country's heritage.
The fortress, deemed the most important medieval castle in Catalonia, is on a hill overlooking both the town and river valley. Initially built as a means of defence, the majestic building is now used by guests for weddings and luxury breaks.
Only a short walk from the castle's four-poster beds are the ancient salt mines, which the fortress has guarded vigilantly since it was built in the 9th Century. Mined from Neolithic times right up to 1990, the extensive tunnels of Mina Nieves are now available to tour. Hard hats on, it's easy to imagine the stories the stalactite-full corridors must hold as you're guided through the mines, even with a glass of the region's best cava in hand.
And if a photo opportunity 500 metres underground isn't enough to tick off your bucket list, you could host your wedding or enjoy a classical concert in the giant cavern.
A car is necessary if you're to explore the eastern region of Catalonia, but hours of listening to a foreign language radio chat show doesn't need to be on the agenda; the rural route between Cardona and the bustling Costa Brava is scattered with things to see and do.
Less than an hour from Cardona towards Barcelona is Montserrat, a Benedictine mountain-top retreat where the magnificent basilica and views battle with one another for the visitor's attention. A treasure trove of history, art and culture, there's no such thing as a whistle-stop tour of Montserrat. The views from the 1,200-metre-high spot alone demand an hour of your attention, accompanied of course by a coffee and cake. A small train can take you farther up the mountain to savour the views, and guided tours are available around the monastery.
One of the most prestigious choirs in the world, the boys of the Montserrat Choir sing twice a day in the Gothic basilica. Fifty-three boys, the youngest only eight, file from their private quarters in silence and treat a full church to a 20-minute spine-chilling performance. A stunned silence follows the hymns as the boys are led by their teacher, who was once part of the monastery choir himself, from the altar.
Easily missed, the art gallery at Montserrat is surprisingly uncelebrated, considering it contains work by impressionist Claude Monet, Caravaggio's dramatic 'Saint Jerome in Meditation' and a painting by a 13-year-old Picasso.
This gallery should not be considered an afterthought.
Further towards the coast, in the heart of the north-eastern region of Catalonia, is the town of Vic which, to the amusement of most, insists on being called a city. With a population of 42,000 it seems somewhat hyperbolic, but what could define it as a city is the sheer number of monuments. A total of 32 statues and plaques can be counted along its weaving streets and in the town centre.
Baroque-style buildings painted in sun-bleached yellows and reds frame the landmark town square, where locals gather with their goods to barter, buy and sell every Saturday morning.
The market makes for an enjoyable morning browsing the local honey and vegetables, the opportunity to make your own sausages and, even better, taste them with wine and tapas later.
The city has a long tradition of braising pork and a booming industry in sausage-making. Get ready to run if you're able to tell a Spaniard you visited Vic and didn't taste a sausage.
Santi Masallera is the owner of Ca La Terasona, less than 100 metres from the town square. People are invited to climb the winding stairs above the deli, make their own sausages with Santi's help and return a few hours later to enjoy them in the simple and comfortable restaurant.
Exactly 70km from Barcelona and 60 from Girona, Vic is a welcome break from the journey if travelling between the two popular cities. Alternatively, Vic and the region of Osona are often used as a base for a hiking or cycling break.
A converted Catalonian farmhouse, the parador of Vic-Sau is located just outside the town and overlooks the Sau reservoir. With only 21 rooms, it is the perfect peaceful retreat after a day of exploring the surrounding countryside.
And, if you're eager enough to keep ticking off the bucket list, the story of the reservoir should give you chills down your spine. Situated on the Ter River, the nearby dam was built in 1962, creating a lake that covered the former town of Sant Roma de Sau. The population moved to a town nearby at the time, but the church steeple of Sant Roma is still visible when the water level is low.
A kayak ride across the lake to touch the top of the steeple could make an even better photo opportunity.
It is about 110km from Vic to the Costa Brava, so it is a journey that should include a pitstop. The only negative thing about the following recommendation is the food is so good you will never want to leave.
Cal Sastre restaurant is nestled in the walled town of Santa Pau, and if you ever have the chance to travel for food alone, this is it.
Welcomed at the door as if you're entering an old friend's home, nothing can prepare you for the feast you will set your eyes on. Green olives in martini jelly cubes and duck liver dipped in dark chocolate served as an aperitif to the mouth-watering duck cannelloni, a dish that has had international articles dedicated to it.
Although the Costa Brava is typically associated with multi-coloured beach towels and stretches of beach playing host to shouting children, there is more to the popular tourist region than first meets the eye.
Figueres, about 40km from Aiguablava on the coast, is home to the Theatre-Museum Dali, the surrealist artist's self-created museum.
From his earlier sketches to the Mae West room, the works of the forward-thinking genius will keep you occupied for hours. Don't miss a visit downstairs to see Dali's tomb.
The fishing village of Begur is only a 10-minute drive from the parador at Aiguablava and is the perfect spot for a romantic evening meal or a tour about its colonial history. As in most places in Catalonia, our tour-guide was a well-informed local who took pride in the heritage and culture of her town.
Arriving at the Aiguablava parador post-sunset, the view from the window had to wait for morning.
But in an establishment where you're treated like royalty, it's tough to leave your bed to discover what picture the window frames. It's worth it, though, to see the waves crashing against the dramatic cliffs below – not even the rain could deter us from sitting out on the balcony to enjoy the spectacle.
IN THE KNOW
Don't miss the art gallery at Montserrat, which includes works by Monet, Caravaggio and Picasso. If Dali's more to your palette, you can visit his tomb at Figueres
Plan your trip
For expert advice on the Spanish paradores, or to book a trip, contact Irish travel agency MAP Travel on 01 878 3111, maptravel.ie.
Aer Lingus flies to Barcelona daily. Alternatively, Ryanair flies to Girona from April onwards. See aerlingus.com or ryanair.com
To learn more about visiting Spain, there's plenty of reading on spain.info.
If the sausage-making in Vic appeals to you, find out more on calateresona.com.
To book a meal at the outstanding Cal Sastre restaurant, see calsastre.com.
To find out more about the Salvador Dali museum, check out salvador-dali.org.