Girona (city of a thousand sieges)
The ancient walled city of Girona stands on a fortress-like hill, high above the confluence of the Onyar and Ter rivers.As the provincial capital it has a long and distinguished history.It was founded by Iberians, the remains of whose walls can still be seen.The Romans named it Gerunda and established it as an important stopping point on the Via Augusta, linking Iberia with Rome.Owing to its strategic importance, it has been fought over in almost every century since its foundation and, perhaps more than any other place in Catalunya, it retains the distinct flavor of its erstwhile inhabitants.Following the Moorish conquest of Spain, Girona was an Arab town for over three generations, a fact apparent in the maze of narrow streets in the center, and there was a continuous Jewish presence here for over six hundred years.The intricate former Jewish quarter of houses, shops, and community buildings is now visible again after centuries of neglect (thanks in part to restoration funds donated by American Jewish organizations).By the eighteenth century, Girona had been besieged on twenty-one occasions, and in the nineteenth it earned the nickname "Immortal" by surviving five attacks, of which the longest was a seven-month assault by the 35,000-strong Napoleonic forces in 1809.Not surprisingly, all this attention has bequeathed the city a hodge-podge of architectural styles, from Roman classicism to art-nouveau, yet the overall impression for the visitor is of an overwhelmingly beautiful medieval city, whose attraction is heightened by its river setting, and lovely views of the distant Pyrenees.Considering that Girona’s nearby airport serves most of the Costa Brava’s resorts, the city is oddly devoid of tourists, which makes browsing around the streets and cool churches doubly enticing.There are three excellent museums and one of the most original cathedrals in Europe.
Although the bulk of modern Girona lies on the south side of the Riu Onyar, bordered to the west by the large riverside Parc de la Devesa, most visitors spend nearly all their time in the old city to the north of the river.Look for a legal parking place (municipal tow trucks do a brisk business in Girona) or pay for parking on the west bank of the river near the bridge, and plan to get around the compact old town by foot.I usually try to park near the Plaça de Independencia and cross the river on the pedestrian Pont d'en Jimez.A well supplied and helpful Tourist Office with very good maps and guidebooks is located just to the right of where the arcaded Rambla meets the Plaça de Catalunya.Note that the schematic map with the recommended tourist itinerary - with lines dotted into a bird’s-eye-view painting of the city, while helpful and attractive - doesn’t include many street names.Ask for another map with street names to supplement this one.
It’s easy to orient oneself in Girona. The skyline is dominated by the Gothic bell-tower of the cathedral.As you walk across one of the bridges, stop to admire the tall multi-hued row of houses that rise sheer from the river, with the cathedral in its elevated position soaring above in what looks like a faded Italian scene of medieval life.Once in the old quarter you are engulfed in a labyrinth of steep, narrow streets, especially in the atmospheric and sensitively restored Jewish quarter, the , one of the best preserved in Europe. The Call was home to over a thousand Jews until 1492, when, on March 31st, the Catholic Kings Fernando and Isabel pronounced an edict expelling the Jews from Spain.The Sefarad meant the end of the renowned Girona School of Kabalists, who for centuries managed to preserve and spread the mystical teachings of Judaism in the West.The Isaac el Cec Center on San Llorenç, and the Kabalist School on carrer la Força, newly-restored spiritual centers, was once attended by Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike.The city of Girona is eager to recoup some of the prestige it once enjoyed as one of the capitals of Jewish thought, and in December of 1998, a multitudinous Januka ceremony presided by a Rabbi from Israel was celebrated here for the first time in 506 years.A museum dedicated to the history of Judaism in Catalunya is planned to be inaugurated in the year 2003.
The main street in the old town is the arcaded Rambla de la Libertat, with pavement cafés, a couple of modernist buildings, and a steady flow of strollers.In the sloping side-streets leading up to the cathedral you’ll chance upon all sorts of curious shops, from antique dealers to hippie arts and crafts shops.You may prefer to work your way to the Cathedral through the Call, as the 90-step esplanade leading up to the splendid barroque façade of the Cathedral, though majestic, makes for a grueling climb.
The tourist office brochure has brief descriptions of Girona´s principal sights. Try to see, at the very least, the Cathedral, with the world's widest Gothic nave, 22.98m, only surpassed by the 25m-wide Baroque nave of Sant Peter's in Rome.Don’t miss the Cloisters and the important Chapter museum (3 Euros. 10-13, 16-20h) where, amongst other gems, the famous 11C tapestry depicting the Creation is kept.The Chapter museum has an English language catalogue.Within five minutes' walk from the Cathedral are a number of good sights, including: the Museu d' Art, Sant Feliu Church (in the rather sad but non-threatening red-light district just below), the Arab baths, Monestir de Sant Pere de Galligants - now site of the Girona Archaeological Museum, the Promenade along the Medieval ramparts, and the Museu d´Historia de la Ciutat on Carrer la Força, with one of the three mummification workshops left in the world.For lovers of the Seventh Art, there is a fascinating new Cinema Museum just across the river from the old town on carrer Sèquia (972 412 777, open winter 10 to 18h, summer 10 to 20h.)
Girona is a big town, (pop. 95,000) and there are plenty of decent places for good food and drink, but much of the old town has been taken over by cheap and lousy restaurants for tourists only.There are three places I can recommend. A long-time favorite for a drink or a snack (good home-made crêpes and quiche) is the , with a sort-of colonial feel with high-ceilings and ceiling fans in stunningly beautiful setting just across from the Palau dels Agullana.Restaurant , c/ Nou del Teatre 3,(972 21 89 48) on a side streetjust behind the Ayuntamiento and municipal theater, is a family run place with a somewhat hippy atmosphere and a nice terrace in the summer months, and slightly exotic a la carte meals for about 25 Euros.On the other side of the old town, near Sant Felix church, is , c/ Pou Rodó 12, (972 20 21 24) with large windows overlooking the old town, with modern designer cuisine going for approx. 45 Euros per head.The best charcuterie is found at , Travessia del Carril 1, atPlaça Calvet i Rubalcaba 12, or at on Ciutadans 4.Good selection of liquors at on Santa Eugènia 7. Antiquities at on Cort Reil 14. Handicraft stores are concentrated on Carrer Ballesteries, and at no. 37 is one of the more original.For nightlife, I've been told that is now the in-place.The week-long activities during the Fiesta Mayor de Sant Narcís, October 29, culminates in a firework display over the old town.On Wednesday and Good Friday evenings during Easter, Roman soldiers march through the streets in solemn processions.
The Club de Golf de Girona, in Sant Julià de Ramis (972 17 16 41), 4 km north of the provincial capital, first exit on the C-66 after getting of the AP-7 exit 6, has a course designed by F.W. Hawtree.The design takes advantage of the lie of the land and offers a pleasant round for golfers of all levels.Eighteen holes, greens fees, hire of clubs and caddie carts, electric buggies, caddie master, practice green, putting green, golf school for youngsters and adults, squash, paddle tennis.Bar, restaurant, child care crèche, shop.Open all year round.
Route 5.Banyoles to Olot through Besalú
Seventeen quick km up the C-66 freeway from Girona is the lakeside market town of Banyoles, site of the 1992 Olympic rowing events.(If you’re not in a rush to get to the lake, turn off the freeway at the signs for Palol de Revartit, with its ruined castle and a fortified precinct, on this attractive alternate route to Banyoles.)The lake, with a surface of one square km and 8 km perimeter, is unique in the world in that it is fed by the confluence of two subterranean rivers, where 600 liters of water are pumped in per second.Despite some Olympic-related lakeside development, with new hotels and restaurants much in evidence, Banyoles is an attractive place to visit, with a well-kept old town and shaded footpaths around the lake. Banyoles grew up around a monastery originally founded by Benedictines in 812.Follow Carrer Nou, full of stone mansions, to the Monestir de Sant Esteve at the eastern end of town, still the biggest structure in the old town, with a Gothic retablo of 1437 backing the altar and cloisters containing 12-16C tombs of local Abbots. (Often closed but you can call 972 57 02 24 to visit.)Just across from Sant Esteve is the local farmer´s coop, a large and attractive store selling everything from fresh produce to excellent quality meats.This is where so many locals buy their wine straight from the barril, about 1.50 Euros per litre.(I hear the co-op has moved to the main road coming in to Banyoles from exit Banyoles-sud, right near Mas Dalt and Can Tapies! I’ll look into it!)
The streets leading back into the center of town are full of ancient buildings, including a 12-14C almshouse, Pia Almoina, with a fine 14C cloister, and now site of the Museu Arqueològic Comarcal (3 Euros), with its famous jawbone of a pre-Neanderthal man found near the lake), and a good example of 15C industrial architecture, the old dye market, la Llotja del Tint, now an art gallery, and the 13C church of Santa Maria dels Turers, one of the earliest example of Catalan Gothic with fine stained-glass windows.The Museu Darder d’Història Natural (2 Euros) contains the collection of renowned taxidermist Francesc Darder, and the rooms dedicated to Man are controversial, to say the least, for their bizarre collection of human remains.All streets lead to the central Plaça Major, a lovely tree-lined, arcaded square with several cafés and a Wednesday market that had been held here since the eleventh century.The café on the corner with kiddy rides in front, , has delicious sandwiches made with especially soft doughy rolls, named Ask for a sandwich with the cold-cut of your choice and pa amb tomaquet, and the xapata bread will be rubbed with tomato and doused with virgin olive oil.The area around the Plaça Major is full of little stores, some of them quite old: fishmongers, fruit and veggie shops, butcher´s and prepared food traiteurs, bakeries, not to mention cafés and restaurants.Walking around this old-town is very pleasant!
The lake boasts a whole series of boating options - cruises, row boats and pedal boats- all of which run to a couple of Euros for an hour of fun on this lake’s clean waters.(Banyoles lake is enviornmentally protected, and only boats with electric-powered motors may ply its waters.)Take some bread along to feed the enormous carp and water fowl.There is a grassy esplanade for swimmers and sunbathers and a few wooden docks from where to dive in.From the Municipal Pool, Club Natació de Banyoles, which has its own esplanade, walk a few hundred meters along a footpath going through the park to the north.The walk around the lake, 8 km, takes about 2 hours and is just plain gorgeous.Highly recommended!
Market on Wednesday.Bicycle rentals (good way to see lake) at , Lluis Constans 273, and at the campground.I´ve had a couple of rave reviews about a new quality restaurant called . It is pricey so I have yet to try it.It´s good news, though, as many of the better local restaurants have closed down or are in decline, and until recently, the best meals were to be had out of town.If you do eat in town, tryel , also known as , on Plaça de Carme, or to the fancier(and much over-priced, I´m told) on the Passeig de la Farga..For those of you who think, like me, that taxi drivers always know the best places, there is a really good workman's midday menu to be had at restaurant , (closed Thursdays) where ruddy farmers and workmen from all over the region pile in for hearty meals at about 10 Euros the menu, under 20 Euros á la carte.To get there:heading out of Banyoles on the GE-529 towards Sant Pau and Olot turn left at the fire station and signs for the Dallas Discothèque. is just behind the Disco.Don't be put off by the “décor” or if the workmen stare at you a little at first.Just a smile and a nod and they'll dig back into their lamb stew and you'll soon be part of the family.I've had such good cheap meals here – not to mention my first ever taste of home-made pine-nut liquor – which was just awful!For higher quality meals press on the in Mieres (see Route 6) or go to in Espronellá (see El Pla de l´Estany below).
For those of you staying in Mas Dalt and Can Tapies, you will have passed a very interesting restaurant just after getting off the C-66 before reaching Palol de Revartit.It is called Can Miá (972 594 246) and many think that the eccentric owner (and waiter) is completely nuts and that going to this place is to participate in a freak show.However, I like the place, I like the owner, and I find the 20 Euros prix fix to be as copious as it is delicious.What do I care if the owner is an surrealist artist and poet and anti-system activist, with his flowing long grey hair and beard, all the decoration in his ancient and atmospheric dining rooms dedicated in one way or another to his cult of personality. Sr. Pere Mià Camps is friendly and his service is good (tho’ he accidentally poured a jug of house wine all over my legs last time we were there, on Sept 20, 2015).His sister is the cook, and the menu offers a choice of about 10 first courses, 12 main dishes plus dessert and good local wine from the co-op, all for 20 Euros.The main courses are almost all roasts, including roast duck, pheasant, goose, chicken, as well as wild boar and lamb.The restaurant is surrounded by caged fowl of every kind and visiting the birds if part of the experience.I’m going to get more info for you about this very particular place, but if you are at all interested in an alternative gastronomic experience, I highly recommend Can Miá.You’ll have to reserve well ahead of time!
Back in Banyoles old you’ll find a café with internet connection at on the pedestrian street heading down to plaça Major.The owner, Melo, has a couple terminals and charges about 2 Euros the hour to connect.He is also an avid fan of American Football and loves playing backgammon.If you need a more serious high-speed connection, the best place is TeleStany, 972 576 508, on the Passeig de la Industria 19, between the medical clinic and the town hall, open Mon to Thurs: 10-14h & 16 – 20h, Fri: 10 – 20h, closed mornings in August. There is another popular wine coop where you can fill you own bottles with several types of local wines for about 1.50 Euros a liter at – follow the Avinguda Farga about 1 km away from town, and after a long uphill climb and just after going under the C-66 overpass, you´ll see the non-descript warehouse on your left.You can also reach this by taking the next exit off the C-66 just after Banyoles sud, signposted Puigpalter. Banyoles's Fiesta Mayor de San Martirianois on August 15, fiestas also on October 24-26.Sardanas are danced on Thursday nights in summer at the Plaça Major.
Across the lake from Banyoles is the borough of Porqueres, where the lake is at its deepest (63m).Here the exceptionally elegant Romanesque church of Santa Maria was consecrated in 1182 and has a barrel-vaulted interior, and unusual capitals depicting plant and animal life.The frieze around the façade has various curious symbols inside circles.At the end of the apse is a triumphal arch with ornamented capitals: God, angels, a scene reproducing original sin, Christ, the apostles, the Virgin, etc.Shame about the piped-in music you get with the 1 Euros illumination fee.Somehow, Mahler's Addagietto (used in Visconti´s “Death in Venice”) just doesn't evoke medieval Christendom.Nearby, horseback riding club (972 57 42 00) offers a choice of historic routes through villages on horseback.Further southwest, mountaintop Pujarnol commands a good panorama, and has remains of an old castle, a fine dolmen, and the nearby hermitage of Sant Nicolau, with its ancient oak tree, recently named a natural monument by local authorities.
El Pla de l'Estany
The triangle formed by Besalú and Figueres and Girona is one of the Province's more pristine agricultural regions, now very much by demand with well-to-do Catalans looking for a summer or week-end retreat.The entire area of soft rolling hills is full of neat little hamlets with a rich patrimony of medieval monuments, and inexpensive restaurants with good home-style cooking.One recommended circular route full of Romanesque churches and fine masias starts in Martís, then on to Crespià, Esponellà, Orfes, Galliners, Vilavenut, completing the circle at Fontcoberta.This route will take you past some good restaurants:Esponellà's , which earned a fork in the Michelin Red guide, offers a set- priced midday menu for just over 10 Euros, although more expensive at night.Duck foie and cannelloni filled with game are house specialies..(Esponellà is also home to the adventure holiday organization called (972 59 71 06), who offer routes with mountain bike, river kayaking, archery, paintball, canyon descents, and “light” survival classes.They offer an entire activity-filled weekend for about 100 Euros, including meals, or one can choose for three activities per day at 35 Euros, which includes a BBQ at days´s end.The owner's name is Mario Vives.In Ofres, restaurant (972 56 10 05) is renowned for its onion cakes, mushroom flan, duck with figs, and magret of duck with truffles.In Vilamarí, (972 56 10 05) is an informal family restaurant which specializes in home-made sausages, roast lamb shoulder, roast duck, and farm chicken with rosinyol mushrooms.Further east, one of my favorites, (972 56 10 59) in Sant Esteve de Guialbes, a simple family-run place (all four generations of them very much in evidence!), with a midday menu and specializes in roasts.The roast duck with mushrooms (anec amb murgoles) is amazingly good for the price, as is the roast capon (pintada).If you decide to eat on their terrace in summer, beware of the gnat attack after dusk.Serinyà, back on the road to Besalú, aside from its Romanesque church and medieval fortifications, is known for its prehistoric cave dwellings, half a dozen of which have recently been turned into park of a theme park, open 11 to 19h, and the 2 Euros entrance fee includes an audio-visual presentation of what life was like in Serinyà many thousands of years ago.
Fourteen kms north of Banyoles is the striking little town of Besalú.From the road, the imposing eleventh-century fortified bridge by the confluence of the Fluviá and Capellada rivers is the only indication that there is something remarkable about Besalù.But once in town you’ll realize you’re in a medieval settlement as yet almost untainted by tourism. Besalù was an important town from Roman times, and when the Moors were expelled from this corner of Spain in the ninth century, it was one of the first independent counties that arose to fill the vacuum.Despite a total population of just eight hundred it prospered, as it had done in a small way since the Romans, and remained a place of importance well into the fourteenth century.In appearance the town remains almost completely medieval, boasting some monuments quite out of proportion to its current humble status.Unfortunately, some of the churches and sights in Besalú are firmly locked: however, if you call ahead, (972 59 12 40) or ask at the tourist office, they’ll either arrange a guided tour for you or have them unlocked so that you can visit them properly.Sights include - aside from the impressive but somewhat over-restored fortified bridge with seven irregular arches - the , or the ritualistic twelfth-century Jewish bath-house, the Romanesque church of Santa Vicenç (1018), the ruins of Romanesque Santa María (1055?) in a fenced-in area on a rise overlooking the village, the 11C Hospital, and the late 12C monastery of San Pedro.Weekly market on Tuesdays.Check out the selection of locally produced sausages at , Major 21, or at at Ganadell 18.Fiesta mayor on September 24.
at c/ Pont Vell 28 (972 59 10 27)serves Catalan fare, including sweet and sour rabbit and duck with pears, at outdoor tables overlooking the bridge. (Cúria Reial) at Plaça de la Llibertat 15 (972 59 02 63) is situated in the refectory of an old convent, with economical home-style cooking such as onion soup au gratin, or oven-baked duck with pears. Closed Tuesdays and the first six weeks of every year. at Avda. Lluis Companys 6 (59 01 10), on the main road, has hearty meals based on traditional farm-dishes such as meat and veggie soups (escudella) and stews with a variety of meats and sausages served apart (carn d’olla), cod-stuffed grilled red peppers, and rabbit with escargots.
If you care to take in a spectacular mountain view that, on clear days - and best in the early mornings - encompasses all the western Pyrenees to the Cap de Creus and the Gulf of Roses, drive 13 km east from Besalú on the C260 towards Figueres and turn north at the sign indicating la Mare de Déu del Mont and the little chapel at Sous.The newly paved 12 km climb is easy, making it truly worth the effort.Below la Mare de Déu del Mont is Beuda, with Romanesque church and a small inhabited castle.Beuda's only restaurant, , offers rice dished, "platillo", or chopped meat and veggie stew, and charcoal grilled meats.Nearby Maià de Montcal has a good restaurant, .Specialties include the fish and noodle stew called fideua, and ox-tail stew, or rabo de toro.
Heading east from Besalú on the C-150 through 13 km of scenic countryside dotted with beautiful masias, the road passes below the village of Castellfollit de la Roca.The town is built on the edge of a basalt precipice that falls sixty meters sheer to the Fluviá River, with the church crowded by houses onto the very rim of the cliff.It's an impressive sight from a distance (even more so at night, when spotlights play on the natural basalt columns) but the village itself, apart from the few old houses around the church and a museum dedicated to the manufacture of sausages, is of little interest, and you would probably do well to press on to nearby Sant Joan les Fonts, with a two-story Roman bridge, and an enormous monastery church over the Fluvià river.From the bridge, a path leads up along the right-hand side of the church and then snakes down to the impressive basalt cliffs, part of the fonts, or waterfalls, which give the village its name.Years ago I had a nice walk, splashing around the rocks and river below the cliffs, but I have heard that the river and surroundings is no longer as clean as it once was.In nearby La Vall de Bianya, which begins just after Sant Joan turning right at La Canya's traffic circle, is a lovely valley boasting no less than 15 Romanesque churches and hermitages, and several good restaurants, including (972 29 00 15), with fancy Garrotxa specialties prepared with nouvelle cuisine flair.Carpaccio of cod, stewed boar, chicken with cod tripe, peach cheesecake, etc.This road through La Vall de Bianya and the tunels de Capsacosta is by far the quickest way to Ripoll and the high Pyrenees.
For Olot and La Vall de Bianya, see route 8.
Route 6. Banyoles to Olot, the Garrotxa mountains
From Banyoles lakeside, if you head west towards Olot instead of north towards Besalú, you enter the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcanica de la Garrotxa (pronounced Garr-o-cha), a volcanic park of some 12,000 hectares, the most important such area in Europe.The road passes through a beautiful wooded landscape, climbing and dipping around craters, offering some lovely valley views.The 40 volcanoes have been dormant for 11,500 years, during which time the ash and lava have weathered into fertile soil whose luxuriant vegetation masks the contours of the cones.
The GE-524 begins just southwest of the lake - follow signs to Sant Miquel de Campmajor and Santa Pau.A couple kilometers into your journey, you’ll come across signs for Les Estunes, with its eerie rock formations and chasms formed by earthquakes, the crevasse walls encrusted with fossils.Carrying on towards Olot you’ll see signs on your left for Can Ginebreda, incongruous site of a highly unusual erotic sculpture garden with 90 bizarre and explicit works by Xicu Cabanyes.Access to the hilly garden is by way of a turnstile, two 1 Euro coins to turn.Don’t miss the interior of the igloo-like chapel to the left of the main entrance.Should you go in, you’re likely to see Xicu at work on one of his obscene fantasies in his studio, the only building on the hillside.The modern building below the parking lot is the bar/restaurant (57 49 62) which is nearly as interesting to visit as the sculpture garden.This appears to be a hang-out for Xicu and others like him who have fled the big city for life in the Garrotxa.When the cook is there and is in the mood the work, the food is quite good, I’m told.But this funky place is essentially a watering hole for some of the big-city drop-outs you tend to find in mountain villages throughout Spain, from the Alpujaras near Granada to the Ancares in Galicia. The bar occasionally organizes activities, be it esoteric tarot-reading or the projection of classic films.
Winding your way towards Santa Pau, you’ll pass restaurant .Don’t make the mistake of eating there.The place literally stinks, possibly due to a faulty sewage main which runs under the building.The two tiny hamlets that make up Sant Miquel de Campmajor are next. Should you be in the mood for a pleasant detour through the countryside, the road into Sant Miquel de Campmajor gradually returns to the main road after passing some very pleasant landscape, including a couple of churches, a monastery (El Collell), and a trout-filled stream lined with enormous masias.The next little town, and where the detour rejoins the main road, is Mieres, with its huge bell tower, and a couple of good and reasonably-priced restaurants: , by far the most popular of the two, just off the main road, serves huge portions of mostly stewed veggies for first course, followed by grilled meats and home-made desserts for about 8 Euros the menu., (972 68 01 98) just behind Cal Met used to be one of my favorite haunts, but has changed hands, and the new owner has a sort-of “sui generis” cooking style which is a generous as it is uneven.Her huge menus (3 dishes plus dessert for 8 Euros) often consist of exotic and occsasionally failed experiments, but if you are staying in the area it is worth a try.The dining used to be the refectory of a nunnery.We celebrated a fantastic here on New Year’s Eve in 1997 with the old owners.Where ever you have a meal in this area, make a point of trying the homemade sweet desert wine, , usually quaffed with a handful of dried fruits and nuts (called ) or the local liquor, , a sweet grappa based liquor with a pungent mix of anisette, nuts, coffee, herbs, and spices.Locals will assure that Ratafia production has to be supervised by witches, the brew left outdoors for a fortnight so that the magic powers of sun and moon achieve a potent blend.Don´t have more than a small glass or two…
Santa Pau is the central touristic village of the volcanic zone, and presents a beautifully preserved little fortified medieval precinct with a defensive perimeter of tall and almost windowless houses.Inside, the old town surrounds a large and very attractive double plaza, popularly known as the , or cattle market.Primitive wooden balconies drip with flowers and huge potted plants line the pavement arcades.Cobbled alleys converge on the thirteenth-century, arcaded Plaça Major, with its dark Romanesque church of Santa María, an enormous medieval building whose original raison d'être still escapes me.
In the square adjacent to Plaça Major, Plaçeta dels Valls, you’ll find , (972 68 04 11) a locally famous restaurant with a few tables outside under the arcade.Fresh mushroom salad, confit of wild boar, pigsfeet with chestnuts, fresh cheese Mató with home-made blueberry jam, etc. are available at the , c/ del Pont below Plaça Major, just before the bridge.The food here is good, served in a cellar dining room and accompanied by strong home-made wine.
SantaPau has an important information center on the Plaça Major offering brochures and maps of the 11 extensive and well signposted footpaths that thread through the volcanic zone.Information is also available at Olot´s Casal dels Volcans – see below.This area is a hiker's paradise, with a great variety of flora and fauna, and numerous cascades and natural swimming pools for a quick and cold summer dip.The tourist office can also inform you of the hot-air balloon rides, , (972 68 02 55) that depart nearby, (flight lasts from 11am to 1:30 pm, is accompanied with cava and coca, and with a post-landing country breakfast, all for a soaring 135 Euros for adults and 72 Euros for kids 5 to 9 years old), mountain bike rentals (972 68 03 58), or helicopter tours of the volcanoes (972 68 03 58).I´m told the helicopter pilot is an excentric Vietnam vet, but have yet to get up the courage to call and check on this.Santa Pau hosts a gastronomic event in January celebrating the tender young peas (pèsols – like black-eyed peas?) which put Sant Pau on Catalunya's gastronomic map.
Continuing west after Santa Pau, you’ll come across a large parking lot where many excursionists leave their cars while exploring the footpaths.The main path up to the tiny hamlet of Sa Cot, with its lovely medieval church, also passes the crater of Santa Margarida, famous for the 13th C chapel built in its center.Warning: this is a 20 minute walk up a small volcano.The last stretch up to the crater is very steep and can be hard going for those of you who are out of shape.Nevertheless, once you’ve reached the top, various easy paths take you through the heart of the volcanic zone, with lavic stone crunching underfoot and minor craters off to either side.From Sa Cot you descend into the Fageda d´en Jorda, a small and locally reveered beech forest which has been turned in to a bit of a theme park, with pony and covered wagon rides (5 Euros) through its supposedly remarkable range of flora and fauna.Local guidebooks will tell you that more than 1500 species of vascular plant have been recorded within the park, and a phenomenal 143 species of birds have been observed in the region.Forest dwelling mammals include beech martens, wildcats, genets, badgers and wild boar, as well as a number of small insectivores.Otters have also been sighted along the rivers, etc…However, I´ve never seen any of this… only a small and well-trampled beech forest surrounded by fences.Note that it is best to visit this area during the week.On weekends, especially in fall, the park can be full of Barcelonian day-trippers.Horseclub Les, 972 68 03 58, near the Lava Campsite, 14 Euros per hour for horses, 9 Euros for ponies for kids up to 6 years of age.
There are several restaurants between Sant Pau and Olot.One of the best, at km 2.5 on the right-hand side of the GE-524 is , (972 26 61 34) a huge and busy family restaurant set in a large masia with an ample vine-covered terrace and offering delicious grilled meats, or at very reasonable prices.If you prefer a more out of the way setting, look for the turn off to the mountain village of Batet de la Serra, where there’s a good and economical restaurant, called , with hearty mountain fare served up by owner and cook, Dolores.Also in Batet you'll find the horseback riding club La Fageda (972 27 12 39).
Olot, the capital of the Garrotxa region, is a far nicer place than first impressions suggest.As you head towards the centre vila, the commercial outskirts give way to a series of narrow, old streets and a pleasant rambla where the inhabitants go about their prosperous business.The center is largely made up of attractive eighteenth and ninteenth-century buildings, evidence of the destructive geological forces that surround the town: successive fifteenth-century earthquakes leveled the medieval town.Three small volcanoes can be seen just to the north.Olot was the birthplace of the composer Antonio Soler (1729-83), who was quite famous as a court composer and musician and a contemporary of Mozart.
If you arrive on the busy main thoroughfare from the south, the Tourist office is on the c/ Mulleres a block after the gardens at Plaça Clara.The older streets nearby, to the left on c/ Hospital, around the Plaça Major and Sant Esteve church, are a revelation.Filled with fashionable shops, art galleries and smart patisseries, they tell of the continuing wealth of Olot, historically based on textiles and the production of religious statuary.Sant Esteve church lies at the heart of the town, built high above the streets on a platform, its tower a useful landmark.It contains a Gothic retablo, and a Christ carrying the Cross, by El Greco.Nearby, the recently reformed 18C Hospicio has an important collection of mostly 19C Catalan paintings of the so-called Olot School, whose adherents included Vayreda, Alsina, and Nonell. (Daily: 11-14, 16-19h, 3 Euros. Take elevator in patio to 3rd floor).Perhaps the most famous work in the collection is Ramon Casas’s gigantic “La Carga” (a scene all too familitiar to 19C Catalans, mounted police charging a crowd).I particularly enjoyed a collection of art-nouveau cigarette advertisements reminescent of Toulouse Lautrec, one showing a Japanese mother feeding a puff to her baby!, and another with a nude maja exhaling into a bull's nostrils.
Beyond Sant Esteve church, the central rambla, El Passeig d´en Blay, is lined with pavement cafés and benches, and adorned by several delightful modernist buildings.In the evenings, this whole area teems with life as the well-dressed Passeig swings into action. The local Jardí Botànic, or botanical gardens, has a fascinating little museum, Casal dels Volcans, (972 26 60 12) dedicated to the history of this volcanic region, and has info on hiking.
Market on Mondays.Pastry shops of interest: at Sant Rafael 5, at Sant Esteve 25, and at Plaça Mora 6.The best cold-cuts are at on Roser 5.An interesting ceramic shop, , is on Carrer del Sastres 12.The Passeig d´en Blay is the best area for an outdoor drink.The , next door to the cinema has good tapas, and its front window serves as a noticeboard for what’s happening in town.Further down at no. 49, the pizzeria is smart and trendy.For Catalan food, try , c/ Mulleres 3, a cheery bar-restaurant where big queues form for large servings for small wallets.Somewhat pricier dishes are served at , Plaça Clara 10 (972 26 10 01) specializing in escudella and wild game. at Bisbe Serra 58 (972 26 16 06) has seafood brought in daily from Figueres. Red peppers stuffed with calamares and ink sauce, filet of sole with fennel, salt cod with fresh white beans, etc.On the way out of town towards La Canya is (972 26 92 09) a reputable ultra-designer restaurant housed in a traditional masia with typical Garrotxa gastronomy.Cabbage with duck foie, home-made sausages, and duck with pears, etc. Also and (972 26 10 04) are very reputable restaurants with outdoor seating set in a lovely park setting and are well sign posted from the ring road around Olot between the turn-offs for Santa Pau and the C-63 heading south.
Like many other toponyms in Catalunya, the name for this mountain chain comes from Greek mythology.The first Hellenic boats reached the Catalan coast at the Gulf of Roses, coming from Masalia, or Marseilles, at roughly 500BC.To the Greeks, this was the legendary land of the Bebrices, whose princess Pirene was seduced and abandoned by Hercules while he was taking a break from performing one of his twelve feats - namely the theft of the herds of Gerion, King of Eritia, and the slaying of a yet another troublesome local giant, this one with three torsos and three heads.Pirene, abominated by her people due to her inadvertent betrayal of her father, was banished and died alone in the mountains, her body devoured by wild beasts.Upon learning of Pirene´s fate, the titan named the chain of mountains separating Iberia and Galia in memory of his ill-fated mistress.
etc, etc --- the full Guidebook is 90 A-4 pages I can send you as a .pdf file.
As far as music and entertainment, the best listings are probably in the local "el Punt", or the "Avui" newspapers, and you´ll want to check the listings of the back pages under Agenda, with listings of what festa majors (town festivals), concerts, and balls (dances) are on offer. I usually use the excuse of checking the local paper to justify going into a bar and have a coffee or a drink while looking over the bar´s copy of the papers.
It is a bit early in the season for me to know what the programming is for summer, but aside from the usual daily assortment of Festa Major's throughout July and August, there is the jazz festivals at Calella de Palafrugell, and of course the big classical music festivals at Perelada casino grounds, Torroella de Montgris classical music festival, and the Schubertiada in Vilabertran. +
I don't think there will be any football in July and August, but you might want to check the Barcelona Football club website. +
To buy tickets on-line for shows and sporting events: +
The later is the best of the two and is in English.
Don't forget that there is loan copy of a new edition of my 90-page Insider's Guide to the Province of Girona, which included the Costa Brava and the Low Pyrenees waiting for guests at all the houses and B&B's I work with. Please remember to leave it there when you go, and feel fee to add comments to it (there are extra blank pages at the back) and I will incorporate them into the text for the benefit of future visitors...
Wine tasting: This English & French & Italian-speaking Catalan has done a few of wine tastings at a few of “our” houses and they have all been big successes - and very economical – I think it was about 12 Euros per person!
name: Nani Ramon
tel.(+34) 671 633 660
I can also email you a copy of my guidebook if you want to have it well ahead of your stay.
Hodge podge of quickies:
Nearby local market days are:
…and perhaps best of all
Spanish TV is now 100% digital. You have to turn the digital receiver on and then hit the AV or Video button on the TV zapper to active this outside source, then you switch over to the digital zapper. There are about 35 channels, most of them garbage, but there are 3 24-hour children´s channels (Disney, Clan, and Canal 3/300) a Sports Channel and 4 or 5 news channels, and the great thing about digital is that foreign shows (mostly US series and movies) can be seen in original version. These programs are usually start around 10pm. Your Digital zapper will have a button labeled AUDIO or LANG or something like that, and once you click on that, you can opt between dubbed and original version. There are also buttons to see information on the present and future programming, text TV (weather, flights, etc) and lots of other extras.
Here is some useful practical info on the area around BANYOLES.
A full copy of my 94-page guidebook will be sent you to upon request. It is a 660KB .pdf file, so easy to download and carry with you.
GIRONA, PRE-PYRENEES, AND PYRENEES
Although the Province of Girona is generally referred to as the Costa Brava, and the coast is and will always remain the main attraction, I think some of the region’s most memorable sights are to be found inland.Inland towns and villages are surprisingly prosperous, a relic of the early industrial era, when Catalunya prospered more rapidly than the rest of Spain.People are enterprising and open, celebrating a unique range of festivals in almost obsessive fashion.There’s a confidence about being Catalan that traces right back to the fourteenth-century Golden Age, when the Catalan Kingdom ruled the Balearics, Valencia, the French border regions, Sardinia, Corsica, and Naples.Today, Catalunya is officially a semi-autonomous province, but it can still feel like a country separate from the rest of Spain.Away from the beaches, you’ll hear Catalan spoken more often, (on the coast many people working in the service sector have moved here from the rest of Spain in search of jobs), and inland you will be enjoy a richer and more varied cuisine, which is often highly specialized, varying even from village to village.As one approaches the high Pyrenees, the cuisine becomes more robust, with many of the specialties reflecting the good hunting to be had in the mountains.Wild rabbit, partridge, pheasant, boar, deer, and goat are available in season, as are a great variety of wild mushrooms.We will begin our tour of the interior in the provincial capital of Girona.