The bridge to the historic village of Besalu.
November. It’s that in-between time of year, when the beach is well behind us, yet there’s not quite enough snow on the ground to head for the hills.
So, we suggest delving deep into the Catalan countryside, where the pace of life drops down a notch. Stumble upon a multitude of sleepy, stone-built villages, the legacy of an eventful Medieval period, and follow Mother Nature into hibernation for a pre-Christmas chill out. It’s the stuff fairytales are made of…
Besalú (and beyond!)
Whilst the big attraction of Garrotxa might be its volcano-studded landscape (which we explored in last month’s issue), a visit to this land-locked comarca isn’t just about nature. Many a sleepy village resides amidst these ancient conical formations, ensuring a healthy helping of culture to contrast against a backdrop of natural wonder. Travel back in time with our mini-tour of Garrotxa’s must-see Medieval villages...
Medieval Besalú makes an ideal base from which to explore this lava-laden terrain. Sitting on the banks of the river Fluvià, 21km east of Olot, this charming village was, once upon a time, the thriving capital of a prosperous, powerful county of the same name, and stomping ground of popular Catalan hero, Wilfred the Hairy.
Every inch of Besalú is ingrained with history. Cross the stunning 12th-century bridge, meander through the narrow winding streets, and find yourself in the main square surrounded by some of the best-preserved Romanesque buildings in Catalunya, including the church of Sant Pere, consecrated in 1003. This age-old maze of passageways was also once home to a vibrant Jewish community; don’t miss the remains of the synagogue and purification baths (mikvah), a unique discovery in this part of the world.
Moving on...the village of Castellfollit de la Roca is, quite literally, a cliff-hanger, perched precariously on the edge of a basalt cliff, measuring over 50m high and nearly a kilometre long. One of the most remarkable sights in the area, the stunning precipice of hexagonal columns rises majestically between the rivers Fluvià and Toronell. Plaça Josep Pla and the bell tower of the old church offer excellent vantage points for natural views over the surrounding valleys and the tiny Medieval old town, built largely from volcanic stone.
Finally, wind up in Santa Pau, situated 10km southeast of Olot at the foot of the volcanoes, and enjoy a good feed of haricot beans—the local speciality. Another beautifully-preserved village, the 13th-century Castell de la Baronia watches over the stone houses and narrow streets of the historic centre, which culminate in the Plaça Mayor. Also known as Firal dels Bous, referring to the cattle market that once took place here, the triangular-shaped plaça remains relatively unchanged since the 14th century. January is also a good time to visit, when the locals celebrate their favourite bean with the Fira de Fesol.
Sleeping: Tucked away near the ancient bridge in Besalú, old meets new at the 19th-century Casa Marcial. The perfect village stay awaits at Hotel Comte Tallaferro in the village square, and Mas Pere Pau offers a rustic out-of-town alternative.
Eating: With just six tables, the tiny Amb les 5 Sentits in Besalú offers a tasting menu of five elaborate tapas at a bargain price. The menu changes daily and is made using fresh, local ingredients, accompanied by an impressive wine selection. For hearty haricots in Santa Pau, try Cal Sastre.
Meaning ‘carved stone’, Peratallada certainly stays true to its name. Sitting upon a clay-based rocky mound, its pedestrianised centre of narrow cobblestone streets and stone-built architecture bears hardly a trace of the modern world, requiring visitors to leave the car outside and step straight into a fairytale.
Built with stone carved from the moat that once encircled this fortified town, Peratallada is located 22km east of Girona in the Baix Empordá region, just 15 minutes from Begur and the idyllic calas of the Costa Brava. Beautifully-preserved passageways wind their way around the 11th-century castle, where a photo opportunity presents itself every few paces, en route to Plaça de les Voltes, a pretty square lined on one side by stone archways.
Follow the picture-perfect streets to the edge of town, and you’ll pass through one of the ancient gateways to the village–Portal de la Virgen–leading to a bridge over the still-visible moat, and the 12th-century Romanesque church of Sant Esteve beyond. A handful of hotels, restaurants and handicraft boutiques add to the charm of this Catalan country hideaway.
Sleeping: There are a number of casas rurales and boutique-sized hotels within the village itself. Try Can Soles or Ca L’Aliu; both are reasonably priced and offer a handful of rooms and a nice terrace.
Eating: Hotel El Pati has a delightful, flower-filled patio where tasty set menus are served by the hotel’s restaurant. Candelaria serves both local and international dishes, Can Bonay is a must for Catalan favourites, and there’s something for everyone at Les Coques del Psss. Don’t miss Cal Tuset, situated in Plaça de l’Oli, known for its flavoursome fairy cakes (magdalenas), in over 20 varieties.
Useful information: You must park your car outside the town’s walls. If you are staying in a hotel within the village, you may be given a parking pass by the hotel.
Did you know? Some scenes from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) were filmed here!
Perched atop a rocky outcrop between the Sierra del Montsant and the Prades Mountains in the comarca of Priorat, the tiny village of Siurana keeps a watchful eye over its stunning natural surroundings. This remote hamlet of just 21 inhabitants is located at the end of a long, windy road and truly feels like the end of the world...the ideal place to disconnect.
An important strategic outpost throughout history, Siurana was the last stronghold of Muslim Spain before it was re-conquered by the Christians in 1154, and became an important point of defence thereafter. History leaves its mark, with the remains of a 9th-century Moorish castle situated at the entrance of the village, whilst the Romanesque church of Santa Maria, built between the 12th and 13th centuries, sits proudly amidst the ancient stone architecture.
And then there is the legend of El Salto de la Reina Mora. The last Moorish queen, Abdelazia, decided she would rather ride off the cliff on horseback than surrender to the enemy. Her horse had different ideas, however. Legend has it that at the last minute, the horse stopped dead in its tracks, but alas, it was too late and the pair plunged headlong into the abyss. If you look carefully, the mark of his braking hooves can still be seen in the rock...
But there are more reasons to visit Siurana than the history held within its ancient stones. Its clifftop vantage point offers incredible panoramic views over the dry, yet fertile vineyards of Montsant and Priorat, and it makes for an ideal base from which to discover the area—whether you’re coming to taste the prized local reds, brave the world-famous rock climbing terrain, traverse the many hiking routes nearby, or simply to get away from it all.
Sleeping: Despite its size, Siurana has something for all budgets. At the four-star end of the scale, Mirador de Siurana is a converted mansion with an outdoor swimming pool, located 700m outside the village, whilst boutique-style La Siuranella offers six rooms in the village, some with stunning valley views. Mid-range rooms can be found at Can Roig, whilst Refugi Ciriac Bonet provides basic but homely hostel accommodation. Alternatively, enjoy the spectacular great outdoors at Camping Siurana.
Eating: Refugi Ciriac Bonet serves good hearty grub on a spectacular terrace perched above the rocky canyon; Restaurant Siurana offers Catalan classics made using fresh, local ingredients, whilst Els Tallers is the gourmet option, with various tasting menus to choose from.
Top tip: Find out more about this curious outcrop, with a tour organised by the local tourist office. Tours last 1.5 hours, cost €4, and must be arranged in advance by calling 977 821 000.