Sitting on a sun-kissed beach on the Costa Brava in Catalonia, staring out across the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, a cocktail in one hand and a good book in the other- life couldn’t be better- or could it?
For many, this image of a coastal paradise is all that comes to mind when they think of Catalonia. However, the true beauty of the region lies away from the seaside resorts, in the quaint villages in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Snowcapped peaks line the horizon, cowbells ring without warning and the proud locals make you feel more welcome than you could ever imagine.
Whether you are an adventure traveller, history buff, wine connoisseur, foodie or a family looking for a refreshing new location to explore, Catalonia has something for everyone. The only problem you might have is not having enough time to visit everywhere on your list.
These are our 5 favourite stops in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
1. San Joan De Les Abadesses
Arriving in San Joan De Les Abadesses, you will no doubt be drawn to the oddly shaped but beautiful stone bridge that leads into the historic centre of the town. Locals will tell you that the new bridge, running parallel, is actually the old bridge and the old bridge is the new bridge- it’s a tough one to get your head around.
The monastery is a photographers dream and offers some respite from the hot sun in summer. Local legends say that the devil used to come here to ‘party’ with the nuns through secret tunnels; for the full story, it’s best to take a guide.
If you are visiting by bicycle or by car you must stop at La Teuleria Restaurant, an incredible family-run eatery, just outside of town. If you ask nicely, the owner may let you into his private cellar where he boasts an impressive wine collection. One hundred and ten year old wine, bottles featuring the Papal seal and the most enthusiastic, friendly hosts are without doubt the highlights.
Budget travellers like ourselves can stay in a little piece of history on the northern edge of the town. An old railway garage has been converted to a modern hostel, Hostel Ruta del Ferro which is in a great location for exploring all that San J0an De Les Abadesses has to offer.
2. Vall d’en Bas
Set in what used to be a crater, the Vall d’en Bas (the Bas Valley) is surrounded on all sides by rolling green hills, littered with hiking trails. If you are seeking some outdoor adventure this would be a fantastic place to base yourself. As well as hiking, there is rock climbing, mountain biking, road biking and even paragliding opportunities in the hills surrounding the valley.
The medieval village of El Mallol is an absolute must for anyone interested in the history of the area. A local guide will be able to fill you in on the rich history, allow you access to the medieval prison, complete with rugged iron shackles, and give you insight into the life of the times and the power that the Lords possessed over the people.
El Mallol also offers incredible views over the entire valley and is a great spot for photos.
If you’re on a budget we would recommend staying at the newly renovated Alberg de la Val d’en Bas. The staff has great knowledge of all the things to do in the area. Whether you want to bike, hike, kayak or even go on a running tour, they can point you in the right direction.
Set on the shores of the beautiful Banyoles lake, this town is the biggest on our list. For us, it screamed healthy, active, outdoor!
The Banyoles lake itself is a hive of activity with people training for everything from triathlons to the Olympics. Rowers, swimmers, cyclists and runners use the lake as their playground and what an amazing location to train in.
For the non super-competitive visitors, there are small lakeside huts run by the local municipality. You can rent these by the day and lie on the deck in the sun or use them to go swimming from.
To get a true perspective of the Banyoles lake you should definitely consider a lake cruise. Alternatively, you can enjoy traditional food and a refreshing copa de clara (glass of beer with lemon), lakeside at La Carpa Restaurant.
While for us Banyoles lake was the highlight, the town itself is not without its charm. As with so many Catalonian towns, the central square is the meeting point for families, couples and visitors alike. There are some wonderful restaurants such as Can Xabanet serving up traditional Catalan cuisine and to make life easy the fantastic Alberg de Banyoles is just around the corner.
4. Sant Pere De Rodes
WOW!! That’s pretty much all we can say about this spot. Fitness enthusiasts may opt to cycle the road to the top but be warned it’s not for the faint-hearted. The good news, however, is that you can drive most of the way and from the car park it’s a pleasant 30minute hike to the top.
Before beginning the hike, you will be treated to incredible views of the Costa Brava in the near distance. Small seaside towns, with whitewashed walls and red-tiled roofs, dot the coastline as far as the eye can see.
But please don’t stop here. The real reward comes only after hiking up to the top of the hill. One foot in front of the other, step by step, you rise high above the coastline below. Reaching the top, we were blown away by the views. From here, you have a magnificent 360-degree panorama of the area. On a clear day you can see for miles down the Catalonian coastline and not far to the north you are looking into France. It really is a breathtaking vantage point.
Looking down, is Sant Pere De Rodes itself, a former Benedictine monastery. The cavernous interior is mind-blowing. Built into the rock on a platform of terraces, the inside of the monastery is simply amazing. Huge pillars line the cavernous interior and you find yourself standing in complete disbelief, staring up at the high ceilings above.
The monks who sought out this location had the right idea and it truly is a labour of love. Just imagining the sacrifice, time and effort that must have gone into building something like this is hard work.
Our final location worth exploring off the beaten track in Catalonia is back on the Costa Brava. Once a quiet fishing village, we are happy to say that Llançà has not lost its charm. We based ourselves at the Alberg Costa Brava during our time in the area.
Stroll along the harbour when the fishing boats come in at 4pm every day with their catch. You can visit the market where the fish are auctioned off or go for a swim off of one of the pebble beaches in the area.
Llançà has plenty to offer the adventure traveller with snorkelling, kayaking, scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing and more in the area. During our visit, we went kayaking with SK Kayak and although the winds were up, we had an amazing time. In calmer weather, you can explore caves along the coastline or go further afield depending on your experience. The guys at SK Kayak know their stuff and can give you guidance on where to go whether you’re a first-time paddler or a seasoned pro.
Renowned for its vineyards, the surrounding hills may look bare from a distance but they are covered in thick vines growing the grapes for the local wines. Everything here is locally sourced, locally produced and you can feel the pride in the locals.
We ate at a restaurant deserving of a Michelin star. A seafood restaurant serving up inventive food that Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White or Wolfgang Puck would be proud of. And it’s affordable! Keep an eye out for Restaurant El Vaixell if you’re in the area and we promise you won’t be disappointed.