Beautiful Northwest Catalonia
Few regions have been blessed with such spectacular landscapes and rich cultural heritage as the Catalan province of Girona. Bounded by the magnificent Pyrenees to the north and the Costa Brava—one of Spain’s most beautiful stretches of Mediterranean coast—to the east, it is also home to orchards, forests, lakes, and the hauntingly lovely volcanic hills of the Garrotxa area. The regional capital of Girona is an enchanting ancient city of twisting stone lanes, dominated by a magnificent cathedral, and the whole area is scattered with scores of picture-postcard villages and historic towns.
The plunging cliffs and turquoise coves of the celebrated Costa Brava are perhaps the most emblematic images of the province of Girona. This gorgeous stretch of coastline runs some 200 kilometres from Blanes in the south to the French border in the north. The name means ‘rugged coast’, and was coined by a Catalan journalist in the early 20th century. When tourism began to take off in the 1950s and ‘60s, the name was dusted off and marketed with enormous success. Film stars, painters, and writers— among them Ava Gardner, Hemingway and Chagall—were drawn by the extraordinary light and natural beauty of the coastline, bringing glamour and pizzazz, and, in their wake, increasing numbers of tourists. Nowadays, for all the enormous popularity of the Costa Brava, and the existence of a handful of brash resorts, it is remarkable how much of the coastline remains unspoilt. Some of the most enchanting coves are accessible only by hidden paths, or even exclusively by boat: these are among our favourites, secrets that we are happy to share with our clients. Tossa de Mar, still crowned by its medieval citadel, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, scattered with Modernista mansions from its heyday in the early 20th century, and Calella de Palafrugell, where colourful fishing boats are still pulled up onto the sands, are among the most charming towns. Tiny Tamariu, which hugs a breathtaking bay, and chic Llafranc, which boasts a panoramic cliff path are others.
The Cap de Creus, a wild, windswept headland with difficult road access, is perhaps the most magical stretch of the Costa Brava. Out at the easternmost tip is Cadaquès, a whitewashed fishing village that has become a chic enclave, its sinuous streets filled with galleries and upmarket boutiques. Salvador Dalí chose to make his home here, in a series of white cottages that are now a fascinating museum. The headland, with its cliffs worn by time and wind into surreal forms, as well as the crystalline waters around it are nature reserves, a veritable paradise for hiking, climbing, diving, sailing and other watersports. On the north of the headland, the small fishing town-cum-resort of Port de la Selva is dominated by the enormous monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture.
The Phoenicians and Greeks were the first to recognise the potential of this lush and fertile region, and the remnants of their settlement at Empùries survive. The Romans later occupied the site, their first foothold on the Iberian peninsula, later brought completely under their control. Today the ruins, shaded by Mediterranean pines, gaze out over a perfect, turquoise bay.
The Greeks first introduced wine-making to the area, a tradition later strengthened by the Romans. Two thousand years ago, the wines of Emporiae were being drunk across the Empire. The wines of this region, now called the Empordà, have their own D.O. (denominació d’origen) and, although not quite as well known as those of the Penedès, enjoy an excellent reputation throughout Spain. Some of the most exciting and innovative Catalan wine-producers are located in this region, and we can guide you to a number of excellent boutique wineries.
Inland from the Costa Brava, there are scores of sleepy villages and towns, perfect for escaping the hubbub of the coast. Handsome Begur preserves its medieval streets, now awash with fine restaurants and stylish shops, while impossibly picturesque Peratallada and Pals have changed little in centuries, their narrow cobbled alleys home to a clutch of historic mansions and monuments. Peralada has become internationally famous for its annual festival of music, dance and theatre, which is held in and around the town’s castle during the summer months.
The provincial capital of Girona, now a vibrant and affluent city, has also conserved its historic heart virtually intact. In the middle ages, the town was home to a prominent Jewish community, led by some of the greatest thinkers and philosophers of the time. The cool stone lanes of El Call (the former Jewish Quarter) lead up to the immense Gothic cathedral, with a vast nave that was considered the largest in Christendom when it was completed in the 15th century. Among the cathedral’s treasures are Charlemagne’s throne, the exceptional 11th-century Tapestry of Creation, and the Código del Beatus, an exquisitely illustrated commentary on the Apocalypse.
North of Girona is Banyoles, a country town that grew up around a 9th-century monastery, and is famous for its beautiful lake, fringed with miniature Modernista fishing huts. It was chosen for the rowing events during the 1992 Olympics, but development was kept to a minimum, and it remains a serene and peaceful spot, ideal for swimming and a spot of fishing. There is a handful of small outlying villages connected by paths through the countryside, or you could also simply stroll around the lake itself.
Miniature Besalú is another perfectly preserved historic town, full of cobbled streets, charming squares and escutcheoned mansions, and accessed by an 11th-century fortified bridge with eight arches that still proudly spans the river. Like Girona, Besalú also had an important Jewish quarter, and the remnants of a synagogue and ritual bathhouse have been discovered. East of Besalú, sleepy Castellfollit de la Roca is dramatically arranged on top of a basalt cliff, overlooking the Fluvià and Toronell rivers.
Continuing inland, a strange and otherworldly landscape begins to emerge: oddly truncated hills, now lush and green, which are actually long-dormant volcanic cones. This is the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone, a quiet rural region dotted with stone masies (farmhouses) and thickly covered with forests of beech and oak. Its principal town is Olot, destroyed by an earthquake in the early 15th century, and rebuilt in an elegant grid spreading out from the Plaça Major. The best way to emerge this stunning region is from the air: specifically, from a hot-air balloon. You can sip on cava (Catalan champagne) and watch the hills and forests slip past below you, with the glowing peaks of the Pyrenees and the deep azure of the Mediterranean in the distance.
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