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Manel Cuesta Image courtesy Consorci de Turisme del Vallès Oriental
Sant Miquel del Fai
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Image courtesy Consorci de Turisme del Vallès Oriental
F1 circuit Montmelo
The inland comarca (county) of Vallès Oriental lies in a pre-coastal depression in the east of the Barcelona province. Once peppered with agricultural communities, the county has seen some big changes in the past 100 years or so with the growth of industrial towns. But there’s no shortage of countryside, and the region has various areas of natural park: Montenegre-Corredor, Serralada Litoral and la Serra de Marina in the east, and Montseny and el Pein del Cingles de Bertí in the north. Montseny is a biosphere reserve and the largest of the parks at just over 30,000 hectares. It’s also home to the region’s highest point, Turó de l’Home (1,706 metres) and on a clear day the massif can be seen from miles around.
Nature has also provided the area with another attraction popular with visitors: thermal waters, which in some places reach 76 degrees centigrade. During the 19th century, in search of rural relaxation, Barcelona’s wealthy elite found that Vallès Oriental provided exactly what they needed. This influx led to the construction of huge Modernista mansions with sprawling gardens, and sleepy villages were transformed into summer resorts. The presence of these and other historical buildings and monuments such as castles, churches and masies (country houses) ensures that tourism continues to be a big earner.
Things to see
Long before the Barcelona bourgeoisie descended, the area already had a reputation for its thermal springs. Realising the therapeutic properties of the mineral-rich waters, the Romans built baths here; the oldest surviving ones date back to the second and first centuries BCE and are to be found in the town of Caldes de Montbui. Although no longer in use, these baths can be visited, and modern-day spas have been built around other historic baths that date from between Roman times and the 19th century.
The balneari (spa) tradition past and present is the main subject of the town’s Museu Thermalia (Thermal Waters Museum), which occupies four floors of a 14th-century building. Two floors are also dedicated to the works of 20th-century artists and friends, Manolo Hugué and Pablo Picasso. The museum is in the Plaça de la Font del Lleó, named after a medieval fountain whose steaming waters still flow freely.
La Garriga, in the centre of the comarca, also has a number of spas and a thermal fountain, all located on the aptly named Carrer Banys (Baths Street). Both La Garriga and Caldes de Montbui have had an impressive list of celebrities visit their spas, including royalty, politicians, writers and artists, but it’s perhaps the name Raspall that most people associate with La Garriga.
Manuel Joaquim Raspall was an early 20th-century architect, originally from Barcelona and a student of Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and La Garriga is one of the principal places where his work can still be seen. Raspall first worked in the Modernista style, later moving on to Noucentista, often using colourful ceramic mosaics, stained glass and iron in his designs. Among his most celebrated works is L’Illa Raspall (Raspall’s Island), a block of four Modernista summer mansions: Casa Barbey, Casa Barraquer, la Bombonera and la Torre Iris. He also undertook both private and public commissions in other towns in the region, including the capital Granollers, l’Ametlla del Vallès and Cardedeu. The local tourist board organises a tour around his work in these and other towns called the ‘Ruta Raspall’.
After visiting Raspall’s Alqueria Cloelia block in Cardedeu, it’s worth spending a few hours in the town to take a stroll around the Pinetons park or visit the Museu Arxiu Tomàs Balvey. The museum houses the 19th-20th century pharmacy of local historian and pharmacist Balvey, with old bottles and jars, some still containing medicines, as well as plants and herbs he used in his apothecary.
Sant Celoni in the east of the region is in an idyllic location between the Montenegre-Corredor and Montseny mountain ranges and is a good base for visiting both. The town has some interesting religious architecture, the highlight being the 17th-century Església de Sant Martí with its superb decorated façade, while the 12th-century marketplace is still used for the weekly Wednesday market.
In the north-west of the region, places worth a visit include the ruins of a ninth-century castle at Castellterçol and other historic buildings like the birth-house of Catalan nationalist politician Enric Prat de la Riba, now a museum. Slightly further south is the 15th-century cliff-top monastery of Sant Miquel del Fai, set in the beautiful surroundings of waterfalls, lakes, lush vegetation and caves.
What to do
The comarca is crossed by both long GR (gran recorregut) and short PR (petit recorregut) hiking routes, which take in sights such as dolmens, hermitages and a variety of landscapes. All the natural parks are also excellent for walking, and nature buffs will be more than satisfied with the diversity of flora and fauna in each.
Montmeló in the south provides a stark contrast to the tranquillity of the region’s natural spaces, as the location of the Circuit de Catalunya. The track hosts the F1 Spanish Grand Prix among other international motor sport events and has a number of activities on offer for the public. Aspiring Lewis Hamiltons can take race driving lessons and courses or there’s the opportunity to drive your own car or motorbike around the track. Guided tours of the track take visitors around the pit lanes, control tower and other areas. Other outdoor activities in the region include paintball, quad bikes and archery (www.montsenyaventura.com) and hot air balloon rides (www.globubolg.com).
For those who prefer to shop, there’s La Roca Village, a complex of outlet stores in La Roca de Vallès. The ‘village’ is a bargain hunter’s paradise, with dozens of items from brands like Adolfo Dominguez, Miss Sixty and Camper on sale at considerably reduced prices.
When to go
In February, the 18th-century traditional dances of the Ball de Gitanes (Gypsy Dance) can be seen in various locations across the county, most notably in Sant Celoni.
What to eat
The region produces a number of D.O. (denominació d’origen) products like the tomàquet rosa (pink tomato), mongetes del ganxet (white beans) and various cheeses, some preserved in olive oil. La Garriga is known for its botifarra—often served with beans—and Montseny for its embotits (cured meats). Local deserts include carquinyoli biscuits, almond-based pastries and the spicy borregos biscuits from Cardedeu.
Where to stay
There’s a great choice of accommodation in both rural and urban settings and Caldes de Montbui and La Garriga have a number of spa hotels. The four-star Termes La Garriga has kept some of its original 19th-century features and also has a garden, complete with waterfall. The hotel offers a range of therapeutic treatments and has extensive facilities, among them thermal water pools, steam baths, saunas and cold spas. The spa facilities are also open to non-residents.
Tel. 93 571 9700, www.circuitcat.com
Consell Comarcal del Vallès Oriental
Tel. 93 860 0700, www.ccvoriental.es
Consorci de Turisme del Vallès Oriental
Tel. 93 860 4115, www.turismevalles.net
Espai Natural Sant Miquel del Fai
Tel. 93 865 8008, www.santmiqueldelfai.net
La Roca Village
Tel. 93 842 3900, www.larocavillage.com
Termes La Garriga
Tel. 93 871 7677, www.termes.com