1 of 2
Photo by Lluis Ribera, courtesy Turisme Garrotxa
The bridge to the historic village of Besalu at night
2 of 2
Photo by Juli Perez, courtesy Turisme Garrotxa
Garrotxa volcanoes home
An aerial view of the extinct volcanoes that can be seen in the Garrotxa region
Garrotxa must be considered a star player among Catalunya’s comarques. As far as tourism is concerned, this far northern region, unassumingly situated in the midst of six other counties, offers visitors an impressive roster of must-see sights and must-do activities (not to mention must-eat foods). Though perhaps passed over by many for its lack of beach-holiday amenities, the area does attract massive amounts of visitors, especially those keen on the outdoors, who come for the spectacular natural parks of Alta Garrotxa or the Zona Volcanica, stay for the culture and beauty of medieval towns like Santa Pau and Besalú and then stay longer still for the area’s truly unique and highly prized gastronomical tradition.
The Roman road of Capsacosta is as good a place as any from which to start a cultural exploration of Garrotxa. Built around 200 BCE, it formed the main artery from the Pyrenees to the northern Catalan coast for some 2,000 years, an indispensable transport link for generations of farmers, soldiers, traders and civilians. From the Vall de Bianya, an area that forms part of Garrotxa’s volcanic park, there are various routes to try—one, a 15-kilometre excursion that loops from the town of Sant Salvador de Bianya to St. Pau de Segúries and back again, should satiate anyone’s appetite for following in Roman footsteps.
Moving through the centuries, the towns of Besalú and Santa Pau highlight the beauty of medieval art and architecture. Though today a modest place, Besalú was for centuries a seat of great importance—first to the Romans and then to the various independent earldoms that followed, and it still boasts a plethora of Romanesque structures, including the 12th-century Monestir de Sant Pere, with its unique ambulatory, and the iconic fortified bridge with its seven irregular arches. Records also indicate the presence of a significant ancient Jewish community, though the only physical remnant is the 12th-century El Miqvé, a ritual bathhouse made of stone, which is still the only one of its kind to have been discovered on the Iberian Peninsula.
Santa Pau, which sits in the middle of the comarca’s Volcanic Zone National Park, is a medieval village with an old quarter marked by gateways, arches, wooden balconies that drip with flowers and ancient cobbled streets. The Plaça Mayor (or Firal dels Bous), the arcaded main square that is presided over by the Santa María church, narrows into the many twisting alleyways that lead to the Portal del Mar, which in turn offers lovely views of the surrounding valleys and the Romanesque churches that dot the landscape. Many of these can be reached on foot and offer fabulous volcanic vistas.
Garrotxa’s capital, Olot, has a fine example of Renaissance architecture in its Claustres del Carme, but Olot’s importance to Garrotxa’s cultural heritage is most notably comprised by two artistic movements: the Olot School, a 19th-century trend in landscape painting that produced many excellent works now housed in the Museu Comarcal de la Garrotxa; and Modernisme, the 19th-century architectural movement that saw the streets of the city transformed by architects like Lluís Domenech i Montaner and Josep Azemar. Interested visitors can follow the Ruta del Modernisme, a walking route mapped out by the Olot town council to show off the highlights of the movement’s effect on the city.
From the 40-plus volcanoes in the south to the dramatic cliffs and gorges of the of the north, the comarca’s landscape is a wonderland for nature enthusiasts. The Zona Volcanica de la Garrotxa is best explored on foot, and those with self-motivation and leg muscles to match will find that the 28 trails of this natural park lead to some spectacular natural sights (dormant volcanoes, towering oaks and beeches) as well as cultural ones (Romanesque hermitages, first-millennia churches). Most of the routes are signposted and many join up with the extensive ‘Itinerànnia’ footpath network, which consists of more than 2,000 routes that cover the land from Ripollès to Garrotxa to Alt Empordà.
Tired feet can be rested either on the pedals of a bike (several of the park’s trails are suitable for mountain biking, though a medium fitness level coupled with a high level of enthusiasm is certainly recommendable), or, better yet, on the deck of a hot air balloon—the approximately 90-minute excursion, which includes an in-flight service of cava and cake, departs daily from the park’s centre.
In the north, the Espai Natural de l’Alta Garrotxa has five hiking trails that pass through some of the most phenomenal landscapes to be found in all the Pyrenees, most of which coincide with Itinerànnia paths. The cliffs’ harsh rock façades are complemented by formidable forests, wildlife (the many rare bird species in the area will be of particular interest to some visitors) and deep green valleys. Archaeological sites and farmhouses are often all that attest to human activity in this wild landscape.
What to eat
The gastronomy of the Garrotxa is a huge draw, with its enticing blend of the traditional (‘volcanic cuisine’—locally grown black turnips, truffles, beans and buckwheat) and the creative (a burgeoning movement in the comarca’s cuisine that focuses on innovation through unique flavour combinations). New interpretations of classic dishes are the order of the day, and there is a somewhat intimidating number of restaurants (several with Michelin stars) carrying this off successfully.
Where to stay
Campsites abound in the national parks, but so too do luxury hotels and charming country houses. Santa Pau’s Hotel Cal Sastre, located just behind the old city walls, has splendid gardens and views of the countryside from each of the room’s balconies (an excellent place to take your breakfast, which is included). Decorated with restored antique furniture, the hotel is pretty, cosy and rich-looking, but won’t have you digging too deeply into your pockets, even during high season.
Hotel Cal Sastre: Tel. 902 99 84 79,www.calsastre.com
Oficina de Turisme de Besalú: Tel. 972 59 12 40
Oficina de Turisme de Olot: Tel. 972 26 01 41
Oficina de Turisme de Santa Pau: Tel. 972 68 03 49
Parks department of Catalunya:http://mediambient.gencat.net
Turisme Garrotxa: www.turismegarrotxa.com