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Spain More Brava than Costa: A stay in the Alt Empordà


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By Dennis Switzer from Alberta, Canada, Spring 2009
Highlights of an eight day trip in March 2009 to the Costa Brava of Spain.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Why the Alt Empordà?

After a week in the urban bustle of Barcelona we were ready for open spaces and rural activities. We are walkers and this part of Catalunya, abutting the French border, fits the bill. We chose to stay inland at Palau-Saverdera, a small village about 15kms from Figueres and 10 Kms from Roses. This village is set off a main road and gave us ready access to points of interest throughout the region. We had originally planned (and booked) five nights at the Niu de Sol but decided to extend our stay to eight nights. We had sunny skies and warm temperatures for our whole stay in early March.
Palau and Environs

We took the early train from Barcelona to Girona where our rental car awaited us at the train station. From there it was a short drive to Palau. We chose the old National highway rather than the Autovia. Women in scanty outfits camped out at wide spaces in the road. It gives another meaning to “truckers’ lay-bys”

The entrance to Palau is marked by a statue of a farmer refreshing himself from a porron with his wife and child looking on. This is appropriate in that the local wine co-op is just to the left. Here, on a regular basis, we filled our little two litre bottle with wine from casks. We had our choice of whites, reds, roses, sweet, dry and fortified styles. The co-op also had local produce, jams, honeys, olive oils, and herbs.

Our hotel was straight up the main street. Although there was limited parking available at the hotel we found the free public parking a short block away very convenient. Mercè’s (Niu’s owner) mother was on hand to greet us and show us our room. Friendliness, cordiality, spacious, comfortable rooms and excellent food were hallmarks of our whole stay there. Breakfast is included in the room rate and dinner can be had at a reasonable extra cost.

If one wishes other food experiences, there are about eight restaurants in the village. Many of them have no signs to announce their presence. For a quick snack, coffee, or drink the bar attached to the new cultural/seniors’ centre is the place to go. For picnic fare there are two small groceries stores that can supply one’s needs.

After breakfast on our first morning we tackled a walk up to St. Onefre’s hermita on the mountainside above Palau. Sign posts indicated a two hour walk but with stops to savour the splendid views of Roses Bay and to examine the many wildflowers we took closer to three hours. Once at the hermita we had choices: crest the hill and continue on to the ruined monastery of St. Pere; return the way we came; or visit the ruined mas (farm complex) a little ways on. We chose to visit the mas. There the trail petered out and we were left to explore old sheep tracks down the hillside. Descent was quick but our internal compass was faulty. We ended up in a neighbouring village 4 kms down the road at siesta time. We found our way to a local bar and were rewarded with the coldest beer we’ve had and information regarding the time and stop of the local bus back to Palau.

A market advertised as “artesanal” was a disappointment. A cursory walk-through, showed it to be a car boot sale where British and German ex-pats were selling bric-a-brac.

During our stay, gardens began to bloom, and almond tress flowered. Other than the friendly people, an eleventh century Romanesque church, great accommodation, easy access to the whole Alt Empordà/Garrotxa area, and (did I mention?) a fine wine co-op, there is not much else to Palau.
Ruins and Other Historical Jaunts

In addition to walking, we’re suckers for any old pile of historical ruins. The Alt Empordà does not disappoint. All the places we visited were within an hour of our hotel.

Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans all called this part of the Mediterranean home. A quick drive across the broad plain brought us to Empùries, home to both Greek and Roman ruins. The site is extensive and is still being excavated. There is very little reconstruction on site but signs provide adequate explanations of what the original buildings looked like. We saw docents dressed in Greek gowns and diadems explaining the significance of the site to students. The small on-site museum has some excellent artifacts. I was most taken with two small finely-detailed mosaics.

Just outside the site, there is a pleasant paved trail that joins the town of L’Escala to the small village of St Marti de Empùries. It follows the coastline and goes by the old Roman port and the place where the Olympic flame came ashore in Spain as a prelude to the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Next to the church in St Marti, at a pleasant outdoor café, we had very good meal-sized salads at a reasonable price.

Rather than hump it over the mountain’s saddle on foot, we chose to drive to St Pere de Rodes, a partially restored tenth century Benedictine monastery. Entrance is free on Tuesday and there is a good pamphlet that guides one through the complex. On the lower level are the offices of Cap de Creus Park. The friendly staff there provides free walking maps of the entire area. Most have English translations. We found it disappointing that in the previous century art thieves chiseled out many of the carvings and carted them away. Some are in the Catala Museum in Barcelona but many reside in private hands. There are some very nice reproductions of the originals in place.

Close by St. Pere is a smaller parish church of St. Helena that is worth an exploration as is the castle on the arête above the complex. Views of the coast are spectacular. It was below St. Helena’s church that we placed our first travel bug in a nicely-hidden geocache.

Early one morning we consulted with Mercè regarding tour plans for the day. We were interested in medieval villages and were thinking of heading to Pals and Peratallada for the experience. “Of course, of course but...” But what? “Well they are crowded and very expensive.” She had other suggestions that involved meandering along country roads and visiting lesser known towns. We followed her advice and had the towns of Ullastret, Cruilles, and Monells, almost to ourselves. At Monells we shared a pastry, coffee, and the morning paper with a couple of friendly cats in the town square.

One kilometre outside of Ullastret, is one of the largest Iberian hill forts yet discovered. Some walls, cisterns and temple ruins are in evidence. Entrance to the site is free but it is worthwhile to pay the small admission to the site’s museum. The exhibits provide a good overview of the early people of the Iberian Peninsula who first met Phoenician traders. There are fine views across the plain to other hill villages and the Medes Islands.

As the sun was setting, we happened upon Pals. The extensive bus parking lot gave evidence to its popularity with tour groups. However, only two buses remained. We spent an hour wandering the streets, unhindered by tourist hoards.

Another day and another walk brought us to dolmens and menhirs in the hills above Roses. First, a word about Roses. Everything in the guide books is true. It is a place of little grace. Is there nothing sadder than resort towns off season? Roses resembled an aged dowager awaiting the application of a substantial amount of rouge to give her the appearance of youth.

Back to our walk. A short way in on the way-marked path is the first, and largest, of the dolmens. It is the largest in Catalunya but small when compared to the ones in Antequera. There is little cover along the trails so a sunhat and water are necessary. In addition to dolmens and menhirs, there are some shepherds’ bories to explore.
The Garrotxa

Olot, the largest city of the Garrotxa region, is an hour and a half to the north west. With an early start we first visited Besalù. It is a picture perfect medieval village with a fine fortified bridge guarding entry to the city. We didn’t tarry. For us, it had the feel of a Disney created set, much like Carcassonne in Lanquedoc.

Olot is a modern town whose primary attractions are the trails to the rims of dormant volcanoes surrounding the town. We found the Casal des Volcans provided a good overview of the geology of the region. The gardens on site must be beautiful in summer. They were just being put in order when we were there. Garrotxa Natural Park offices are also located here. They provide maps of trails in the whole region. In Olot, Montascopa is the easiest cone to climb and provides the best views.

With maps in hand we set out to explore the area. Our first stop was to view Castellfollit de la Roca village. It sits on the precipice of a basalt column. A large Catalan flag draped from the church steeple left no doubt about its allegiance. It was still too early to confront the Sausage Museum so we settled for a coffee and pastry on the square.

A couple of short walks through the beech and oak-lined trails built up a thirst. We stopped for a rest and beer at a bar on the edge of Santa Pau. The terrace had a fine view of the town but we were intent visiting the Santa Margarita hermita at the cone’s crater bottom. That was the plan until we heard rhythmic tapping of sticks and bells jingling. Young people, clad in red and white, were being followed pied piper-like by a throng into the village. We followed. Serendipity struck again. Santa Pau was celebrating a Calçotada put on a young peoples’ Catalan nationalist group. Jams, honeys, cheeses, rustic breads, and organic veggies were on offer. However, the highlight was an all-one-can-eat calçot meal. A calçot is a cross between a leek and spring onion. In the town square, bed spring-sized braziers fueled by beech wood, roasted calçots. Accompanying the calçots were tomato and garlic dipping sauces, bread, effervescent young white wine and a vegetable medley, for ten euros. But first there was entertainment.

A folk rock band warmed the crowd. But that was only a prelude to the folk dancers who performed a number of dances brandishing their batons and accompanied by a tin whistle and concertina. The walls of the square reverberated with the black powder arquebus brigade. This announced the beginning of the log chopping and axe-throwing competitions. On display were axes from Basque country, Catalunya and North America.

Sated and provisioned with chestnut honey and lemon jam, we set out for a (very) late afternoon walk up the Santa Margarita volcano cone. Once up, it was down to the crater’s floor to find another geocache. We made it back to the car as the sun set. It was a very full and satisfying day in the Garrotxa...
The Costa

Although it was too early to engage in water sports, we did find time to visit some of the coves and seaside view points in the area.

The pocket coves of Aiguablava and Tamariu were serene. One wonders what they are like during the summer. More significantly, what are the roads leading to them like? On the headland to the right of Aiguablava beach is a modern Parador. Too breezy for lunch on the terrace, we settled for a well-prepared three course menu meal in the dining room. Although nice, their mare and montagne entrée did not match Mercè’s in either quality or quantity.

We enjoyed a pleasant walk from Roses outskirts to Montjoi beach, the home of El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s acclaimed restaurant. There are many spots along the trail to stop and have a picnic lunch. The trail descends to secluded beaches where we sunned, listened to the sea and read.

The headlands at Cap de Creus are another matter. Trails lead from a parking lot through a tortuous volcanic landscape. Here formations take on the appearance of a dragon’s back, ghastly faces, gargoyles. Winds buffet the headland and drive trees to grow parallel to the ground. We ducked into a hollow and watched waves crash along the coast. We were told whales and dolphins are seen but there was no show for us on this day.

There is a restaurant next to the lighthouse. We stopped for lunch but were not pleased with either the service or the food. I ordered a Serrano ham and cheese sandwich. The bread was stale and the filling was ordinary processed ham and cheese slices. They were “out” of Serrano but still I was billed for the more expensive variety. When questioned, the waiter said I was served Serrano. Also the draft beer was not available so the more expensive bottled version was the only one on offer. The only one, unless one happened to be a restaurant employee! Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the scenery.

Cadaques and Port Lligat (Dali’s home) right next door offer a pleasant afternoon’s stroll. Their beachfront had not yet been repaired from the severe winter storms that had raked the region. Dali’s statue had even lost its cane. Be aware that the town fathers have erected signs and barricades that funnel visitors into a new paid parking lot. Tariffs are around €.10/minute. In off season however, one should negotiate the round about and look for a spot closer to the beach. In high season I suspect that one would count him/herself lucky to garner a spot in the paid parking!
Concluding Remarks

We visited the area previously so we didn’t visit Girona or Figueres this time. We recommend first time visitors to this area consider exploring Girona and seeing Dali’s Teatre-Museu in Figueres. If time permits and one has obtained an insurance card for travel in France from the rental company, a drive along the coastal road to Collioure makes a nice day trip with a stop at the Templar wine caves in Banyuls.

We found the roads to be in good condition. We traveled in off season and the traffic was light. However, the twisting mountain roads with narrow to non-existent shoulders may try the patience -and nerve- of drivers during high season. There may be congestion.

In early March, the weather was perfect for walking. It was about 20C during the day, with lots of sun and generally light breezes. The broad plain around the Bay of Roses provides easy cycling for enthusiasts and many hotels provide bike rentals.

Because it was off season, many established restaurants were closed. This may be a consideration for those who choose to travel at this time and who have recommendations from others of specific restaurants.

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