Catalonia: It's foodie bliss on the graceful slopes of Spain
I liked the idea of going to Catalonia to see what all of the independence fuss was about. And I felt like a few days skiing at the end of January. But nobody told me about the restaurants.
A few days of fantastic food came as a very pleasant surprise. I arrived in Barcelona about 9.30am after an early start. It needn't have been so early because with boarding card in hand and bag the right weight, it takes about a minute to check in.
A €30 taxi ride took me to the centrally situated Hotel Yurbban Trafalgar. The Yurbban has a quirky character which I liked. There is a sign on the door asking burglars and encyclopedia salesmen to knock first. My room card was embossed with "what happens in your room stays in your room". It was given nothing worthwhile to report. Sorry. Plus you have a choice of five types of pillow.
You could amble for hours in Barcelona and amble I did. You could visit one of the 11 daily food markets. A short walk brought me to the Arc de Triomf and Ciutadella Park where green parakeets were making one hell of a racket. Everything in Barcelona is between the mountains and the sea. Once the city walls were demolished in the 19th Century, the city had room to expand out to Gracia where I spent a pleasant hour looking around Casa Vicens, the first house Gaudi was commissioned to design. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Then it was up to the amazing Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau, a hospital designed by the famous Lluis Domenech with later additions by his son. It is a world famous art nouveau site, was opened in 1916, declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 1997, and was still a hospital until 2009.
Down the road you can see Gaudi's famous Sagrada Familia Church which they began building 130 years ago and expect to finish in about 20 years. It is the builder's story to end all builder's stories.
I admit to having a short snooze before embarking on the Food Lover Tour (www.foodlovertour.com) which I heartily recommend. I was a bit aghast to be told we were doing five bars as that sounded like a pub crawl. But with an entertaining and informative guide and a selection of off-the-beaten-track bars this is a good way to see the locals' Barcelona.
We began at Pepa Tomate which the owner humbly told me was the best in Barcelona. Well, their calamari with aoili was great washed down with Estrella beer. And that was before I had the spinach in honey or braved the unisex toilets.
A short walk to Els Sortidors del Parlament where craft vermouth, with ice, a slice of orange and olive led the way to smoked sardines and roasted vegetables. Then three minutes to Anardi where I had local cider. I gorged on various pinchos, a combination of olives, chili and anchovy. Number four bar was El Sortidor de la Filomena Pages, named after the first public water fountain available in Barcelona in the square outside. Opened in 1908, it is one of the oldest bars in the city. I enjoyed a craft beer and raw tuna before retiring to the Cal Marino where our guide Zoltan demonstrates the old tradition of drinking from a porron, a cross between a wine pitcher and a watering can. Of course I tried - and headed home with a T-shirt soaked with moscatel.
My next three days were spent skiing, snow walking and eating, apart from one ill-fated hour spent hanging from ropes in one of those adventure playgrounds. In skiing I am a bit better than an 18 handicapper. I will not be chancing my luck on the black runs.
We drove to the Cerdanya Eco Resort in Prullans via a great 5km tunnel. I settled into my room with a view in the comfortable Hotel Muntanya. Catalonia, I was to discover in a number of hotels, has the best pillows in the world.
They broke me in gently with a very pleasant guided mountain snow shoe walk in nearby Lles. Gentle exertion completed, lunch comprised pumpkin soup with cheese and ham. Really it was more like delicious lumps of pork belly, and I immediately decided I could try this at home. It was a good preparation for a visit to their sauna and a swim in their indoor/outdoor pool.
I lay looking at the mountains and contemplated the night skiing that was ahead of me with that apprehension you feel on doing anything for the first time. I need not have worried. They know what they are doing. This resort (www.masella.com) has 65 pistes, more than 53km of snow to ski, of which 10km and 13 pistes are lit at night.
I worked up an appetite and that led us to the nearby Pyrenean town confusingly called Alp.
Every now and again the world provides you with a wonderful restaurant surprise, and for me it was Restaurant Ca l'Eudald, part of a 33-room hotel. This was seven (yes seven) courses of sublime food each introduced by the owner and accompanied with wines of his choice. Keep this in mind. You could have walked in off the street and eaten this feast and had change from €40.
I began with partridge and pickled cabbage. Next a local dish, Patata confitada amb botifarra del Perol esparracada (mixed sausage from Perol), that looks like lasagne but is sliced potato with layers of local sausage meat. A little duck carpaccio with foie gras and balsamic, and for course four, some mountain rice with local beef, chicken and rabbit and home-grown veg.
This was followed by a mushroom creamed soup with diced ham and then the main course, octopus on creamed potato while my colleague chose hare. Finally, a cream and pear tart. It was hard to find a wine over €20 on the list. Another dessert, mel i mato, arrived which is a glass of cheese with honey and a walnut.
Our ratafia liqueur, which has a liquorice taste that I loved, was probably the ninth course. I'd lost count - but I would walk on hot coals to visit Ca l'Eudald again.
Next morning was more skiing and this time in La Molina where they say you find the best ski-learning slopes in Spain as well as great chairlifts and electronic passes which can be combined with a Masella pass to give access to 142km of quality piste for all ability levels.
That evening, after a short stop in Puigcerda I was to learn something that I suspect few of you know and it will make a good pub quiz question. What part of Spain is totally surrounded by France? Well, it is called Llívia and it genuinely is surrounded by France though you don't notice any border - which is as I like it.
We visited Cal Cofa, again a family run restaurant with the produce coming from their own allotments and farm. Here, the lamb just fell off the bone.
After another night on the Catalonian pillows we headed, well rested, to the adventure park with zip wire in La Molina where I was a disgrace. I have no head for heights, was recovering from a cold so had no lungs left and was at my midwinter slob weight. Suffice it to say that the high point of this venture was being rescued. There are no photos of this ignominy.
Then to Ribes de Freser where we took the rack railway to Vall de Nuria (www.valldenuria.cat). Vall de Nuria is a car-free area and the monastery has quaint traditions and only one remaining monk. There is a sort of prayer chair with a hole - and it is said if a woman puts her head in the hole and a man rings a bell she will conceive. For this reason lots of children are called Nuria!
My last night was spent eating and sleeping in the beautifully modern Hotel Les Planes del Grau in Sant Joan de les Abadesses (www.lesplanesdelgrau.com). It had once been accommodation for shepherds but has been totally rebuilt. Needless to say there were more great pillows. Catalonians have been getting a good night's sleep and thinking clearly for centuries.
Driving through Sant Joan de les Abadesses you will be struck by the Romanesque bridge which goes back to 1138. In 1428 an earthquake destroyed it but it was rebuilt and did fine until it was dynamited at the end of the Spanish Civil war. It was rebuilt in 1976 and is a sight to see rising to a point with small Romanesque arches in the walls.
My last bit of culture before heading for the airport was in Ripoll at the Monastery of Santa Maria which was founded in 879 (www.monestirderipoll.cat). The magnificent portal built in the 12th Century is known as the stone Bible. You can also see a mosaic of Sant Eudald of restaurant fame. This was the site of a famous scriptorium which was very active between the 10th and 12th Centuries producing some of the most important manuscripts in Europe. Apparently some of the Bibles had erotic and romantic pictures hidden in them - proving that even monks get bored.
I felt a slight ache as we descended the thousands of feet from the Pyrenees. I was leaving the medieval heart of Catalonia where modern and ancient coexist happily. I will go back for the skiing. Or maybe one spring for what must be beautiful mountain walking. And I believe they even have golf courses. With those winding motorbike challenging roads maybe I should just go and live there. It is not essential to eat seven courses every night.
* The Catalan Pyrenees boast 16 ski resorts - 10 for alpine and six for cross-country skiing - which attract two million visitors every year.
* John visited three of these ski resorts, all just two hours from Barcelona, which makes them perfect for those looking to combine a city break with the slopes.
* You can fly directly from Ireland to Barcelona from €50 for a return flight.
* For the accommodation, Prices at Yurbban Trafalgar in Barcelona start at €98 per night; in the Pyrenees, there are several options both close to the ski resorts and in charming villages nearby.
* Hotel Muntanya, Cerdanya Ecoresort, has rooms from €68 per night, and Les Planes del Grau offers rooms from €95 per night.
Sunday Indo Living