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Spain> Costa Brava and Beyond


A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Costa Brava and Beyond

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This itinerary is essentially a tour of Catalonia and a sampling of the multiple delights to be savored in this region: spectacular mountains, lovely old towns and castles, and beautiful seacoasts with alternating cliffs and beaches. Catalonia has been settled continuously since the Greeks landed in the 6th century B.C. In the 15th century, Catalonia was combined with Aragón to form a vast kingdom extending to Naples in Italy, and it became, somewhat reluctantly, part of the new kingdom created by the marriage of Ferdinand, King of Aragón, to Isabella, Queen of Castile.

Catalonia has fiercely defended its autonomy during its entire history. As a Republican stronghold in the Civil War of 1936-1939, the region experienced a great deal of the bloodshed. When the Nationalists (under Francisco Franco) won, regional autonomy was suppressed. Only after the adoption of the new constitution of 1978 were the various regions allowed to regain a measure of autonomy, and Catalonia was the first to do so.

In addition to Spanish, the regional language of Catalan is widely used. As in Galicia and the Basque country, you often see things spelled in the regional dialect and, since 1978, most official signs have been replaced with bilingual ones. Cuisine in Catalonia vies with that of the Basque region for the title of best in the country. It includes many seafood and meat dishes with a variety of sauces. In Catalonia, the mixture of sandy beaches, rugged coastlines, gorgeous mountain scenery, and fine food offers something for everyone.

PACING: Depending on how far you want to go on your first night out of Barcelona, choose between Cardona or Seu d'Urgell for your first overnight. Allow at least two nights in the Pyrenees and two nights at the beach before returning to Barcelona. Begin this itinerary with a stay in Barcelona, an impressive and prosperous city with much to see and do. For suggestions on sightseeing in Barcelona, see Barcelona Highlights.

Leave Barcelona by going south on the A2 freeway to exit 25 just outside of town. Turn right on NII to Martorell, an ancient town where the Llobregat River is spanned by the Puente (bridge) del Diablo, said to have been built by the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, in 218 B.C. He erected the triumphal arch in honor of his father, Hamilcar Barca. Continue on NII to Abrera and bear right on C1411 to reach Montserrat, whose ragged, stark-gray silhouette makes you see instantly why it is called "serrated mountain." After entering the village of Monistrol De Calders, follow the signs to the monastery on top of the hill-about 7 kilometers, along a zigzagging road offering increasingly magnificent views. You can opt for the funicular (cable car ) from a clearly marked point just before Monistrol, if you would rather avoid the mountain driving and the sometimes severe parking problem up top. Taking the cable car certainly makes the trip more enjoyable for the driver.

The golden-brown Monastery at the crown of Montserrat contrasts strikingly with the jutting, gray peaks of the mountain. The setting is ultra-dramatic, and it is claimed that on a clear day you can see the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. The monastery church is home to the famed Moreneta, or Black Madonna. The figure, reportedly made by Saint Luke and brought to Barcelona by Saint Peter, was hidden in the Santa Cueva (holy cave) at the time of the Moorish invasions, then found by shepherds in the 9th century. This is the patron saint of Catalonia, and is venerated by thousands of pilgrims annually. Numerous marked paths and cable cars take you to various viewpoints, as well as the monastery, along the 22-kilometer massif.

After you have visited this marvelous mountain, one of the most famous in the world for its unusual appearance (the inspiration for Montsalvat in Wagner's Parsifal), return to Monistrol and turn left to Manresa. Visit the elaborate 14th-century collegiate Church of Santa María de la Seo on a rocky cliff above the town. Follow the signs for Solsona and, as you leave town, do not fail to look back to catch a spectacular view of Montserrat in the distance. Follow the Rio Cardoner through red, pine-covered ridges, punctuated with little farming towns, to Cardona, beautifully situated and crowned by an outstanding fortress/castle, which just happens to be the Parador de Cardona. This magnificent parador retains much of its 10th- and 11th-century construction, and the purely Romanesque Collegiate Church of Saint Vincent is in the center.

Cardona's earliest significance was as a source of salt for the Romans. The conical mountain of salt to the south of town has been mined for centuries. The town itself is very quiet unless you happen to be there on Sunday, market day, when things are considerably busier. If you time your visit for the first half of September, you can experience the annual festival with a "running of the bulls," similar to that of Pamplona.

A lovely side trip is to the ancient brown-and-red village of Solsona, about 15 minutes away, which is entered through a stone gate in the old town wall. It has a salt and craft museum, and a quaint old quarter for wandering. The parador in Cardona is wonderful, but Solsona is a more interesting town.

Head northwest out of Cardona following a lovely stretch of road through rugged hillsides, dotted with ruins of castles and monasteries, through Solsona (worth a stop if you did not make the side trip above).

Continue to Basella, then turn north, following the Segre River for the 50-kilometer drive to Seu d'Urgell. At this point, the Pyrenees begin to show their brooding presence in the distance ahead. Cross the Segre to reach the aquamarine Oliana reservoir. From the banks of the reservoir, you get splendid views of the lake surrounded by its gray-green sheer cliffs, which occasionally seem almost man-made, giant, stone edifices. At the other end of the reservoir is Coll De Nargó, a village stacked on the hillside like a layer cake. Beyond Organyà, the cliffs become steeper and closer as you traverse the deep Organya gorge. The gray cliffs rise to 610 meters here and make an impressive backdrop before you come out into the fertile valley where Seu d'Urgell is located.

Seu d’Urgell is handily located at the confluence of two rivers; one flows from France, the other from Andora. It has a small, historic center with a 12th-century Cathedral and a Museo Diocesa full of medieval manuscripts and works of art, located near the parador. Be sure to head for the Olympic park to enjoy canoeing and rafting. Another park contains a reconstruction of the ancient cloisters with a fun twist-all the gargoyles are heads of famous persons (we spotted Marilyn Monroe). The town makes an excellent base for walking in the summer, cross-country skiing in the winter, and visiting Pyrenean Mountain villages.

If you want a daytrip that combines scenery with shopping, shopping, shopping, you can take a daytrip from Seu d'Urgell to Andorra, cross into France, and return to Seu. Just 9 kilometers north of Seu, you reach the border of the tiny principality of Andorra, which is under the joint administration of the Bishop of Urgell and the French government. Recognized throughout history for the fierce independence of its residents, Andorra is now known mostly as a duty free zone, and thus a shopper's paradise. You see an infinite number of duty free stores selling goods lining the streets both in and around the capital, Andorra La Vella. Besides shopping, Andorra offers mountain scenery sans pareil. You ascend through pine forests crowned by the barren, blue-gray, snow-dotted peaks of the Pyrenees. It is truly a breathtaking drive. You see numerous ski areas as you cross the Envalira Pass and descend the mountainside to the French border. From here, it is a short drive through the French Pyrenees to Bourg-Madame. Just outside of town, you cross back into Spain at Puigcerdà, a small, fortified border town. From here, head west through the pretty valley of the Segre River back to Seu.

On the first part of today's drive the signposting is tricky, so follow carefully within this paragraph. Leave Seu following signposts to Barcelona and the Cadi tunnel (neither of which you are going to but this gets you well on the way) to your first destination the ski resort of La Molina. Follow the Segre gorge to Bellver de Cardanya, after which you take a right turn (Cadi Tunnel) and the road brings you through verdant meadows in a high valley. Now ignore signs for Cadi and follow signs for Puigcerdá, until you see a right turn down to the ski resort of La Molina (on an unnumbered rural road).

La Molina is one of Catalonia's most important ski resorts. From here, the road climbs up to the N152, a mountain road that clings to the hillside high above the valley and winds you down through Ribes De Freser, a village of pastel-colored buildings along the River Ribes. Follow the valley down skirting the town of Ripoli with its extensive suburbs. There's a Benedictine Monastery founded by Visigothic Count Wilfred "the Hairy" in the heart of town, but parking is very difficult. Wilfred was responsible for freeing Catalonia from the domination of Charlemagne.

Leaving Ripoli, follow the N260 almost to Vic, turning left through Manlleu onto the B522; which brings you to Sant Marti Senscorts, where you follow the C153 in the direction of Olot. The higher you drive, the more the scenery improves. You must make the short detour to the quaint, little town of Rupit, where gray stone houses snuggle against cliffs alongside the river. Walk across the footbridge into town; stroll through the age-old cobblestone streets and plazas with their stone houses and iron balconies hung with colorful flowers. It is a perfect place for pictures and an old-world atmosphere pervades.

Skirt Olot and, just after the long tunnel, glance back to see Castellfollit de la Roca poised on a rocky outcrop at the very edge of a deep ravine.

Besalú is well worth a visit. Skirt the town until you pass the old bridge on your right (park and walk into town). Stroll the streets with its shops and restaurants. Sit for a while and soak up the atmosphere of the town's colorful square. The tourist office by the bridge will supply you with a map of the town.

Leaving Besalú, the C150 brings you quickly to Girona a bustling, historic city whose traffic-clogged streets deter you from heading for its historic center. The Roman walls (Passeig Arquelògic) provide a walkway around the city. Downtown there are several rows of old houses crowded beside the river. Behind them is the Ramblar de Libertat with its shops and cafes.

From Girona, it's a short drive to the Costa Brava (Wild Coast)-which runs south from the French border to Blanes. It's a lot less "brava" than it used to be, with the appearance every few kilometers of another hotel or resort filled with white cottages with red-tile roofs and all the support and entertainment services that go with them. But the sea and the rugged coastline are as beautiful as ever. The water is a clear, deep blue and dotted with sailboats and motor cruisers. Choose a base with a suitable hotel and set out to explore.

Villages from north to south:

Cadaqués is a whitewashed and picturesque fishing town/artist colony that surrounds the harbor.

Roses lies at the head of a sheltered bay, its sandy beach is the longest in the Costa Brava-a mecca for watersports.

L’Escala is a smaller resort with fine beaches and a small fishing harbor protected by two inlets.

Begur is a hilltop town just inland of the coast. Its castle ruins offer a nice view of the town and its maze of streets. From Begur, you have excellent views of the coast.

Agua Blava is a rocky cove dotted with recreational boats. There are several lovely hotels overlooking the blue cove.

Llafranc is a very attractive resort with a curve of white sand and a harbor of boats. A promenade leads from here to the adjacent town of Calella, a pretty resort town with an impressive botanical garden on a cliff overlooking the sea.

La Platja d'Aro has a long, sandy beach lined with high rise hotels

S'Agaró is an elegant resort with a large, public beach and magnificent homes in a private, gated community.

Tossa De Mar is magnificent in a beautiful setting with a pretty, little beach curving to the cobbled streets of the old town, crowned by a lighthouse, surrounded by 13th-century walls, and impressive round towers. From here, the road follows a spectacular, cliff top route to Lloret De Mar (whose natural beauty is somewhat tempered by high-rise apartments and hotels). It has a long, golden beach, which makes it exceedingly popular, especially in the summer months when its population more than triples.

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A Few Nearby Hotels and Bed & Breakfasts:   List Them All

A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Maison Allene
, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Relais de L’Alsou
Carcassonne, languedoc roussillon, France, Metropolitan
€ 108-147
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Arianella de Can Coral
Torrelles de foix, Cataluña, Spain
€ 69-80
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Can Torras
Quart, Cataluña, Spain
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Castell Rose
Prades, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
€ 85-110

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[ icon ] Seu d’Urgell
Cataluna, Cataluña, Spain
[ icon ] Carcassonne
Languedoc-Roussillon, France
[ icon ] Ripoli
Cataluna, Cataluña, Spain
[ icon ] Barcelona
Cataluna, Cataluña, Spain
[ icon ] Olot
Cataluna, Cataluña, Spain

A Few Nearby Restaurants:   List Them All

[ icon ] Amar
Castelldefels, Cataluña, Spain
Spanish Cuisine
[ icon ] El Celler de Can Roca
Girona, Cataluña, Spain
Spanish Cuisine
[ icon ] Les Cols
Olot, Cataluña, Spain
Spanish Cuisine
[ icon ] Comte Roger
Carcassonne, Languedoc-Roussillon, France
French Cuisine
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