Saturday, November 25th 2017.

Destinations

Jonathan Ramael
CRISSCROSS THROUGH CATALONIA

 

By Jonathan Ramael

 


From 17 to 21 June 2012, BBT Online reporter Jonathan Ramael took part in a press trip through Catalonia, organized by the Catalan Tourist Board. Barcelona is of course the most famous destination of the region, but that was not where we were headed. Instead we visited the Pyrenees, the surrounding countryside and the Costa Brava. The most important goal of the trip was showing us the wide variety of available activities. Here’s our report.

Newsflash: Catalonia is lush, green and beautiful. It came as quite a surprise to me. I was only familiar with the South of Spain, which contains fantastic cities but has a landscape that I remember as somewhat dry and dusty. None of this in Catalonia and the Pyrenees. Jagged, wooded peaks as far as the eye can see, and hidden between them green valleys with winding rivers and small blue lakes. A stunning landscape, perfect for painters and lovers of the great outdoors, but also for those looking for prime teambuilding sessions and incentives. A quality our leg and arm muscles would soon discover.

 

Apparently I have fear of heights

VallcebreIt soon dawned on us that this was going to be a physically intensive trip. Our first activity in the Pre-Pyrenees would prove to be my greatest challenge: a Via Ferrata route on the Roques de l’Empalomar near the town of Vallcebre. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept: it’s climbing a steep, dead straight rock-face on little steel steps, while securing yourself with two hooks for safety. For me it was more than that, it was discovering another one of my great fears I did not yet know about: heights. In the beginning, when we were going straight up, all was fine. Soon however, I started noticing the wind playing with my clothes and hair, subtly drawing my attention to the ever growing emptiness beneath me. As my brow shined with cold sweat, the worst was yet to come. On a horizontal part of the course, supported by my own weight, the poor girl in front of me got unwell and could go no further. As I hung there helplessly for ten minutes, quietly panicking and thinking about those who I would leave behind after falling to an untimely, horrible death, the two journalists behind me continued their relaxed conversation, while taking pictures of me. I’ll make one hell of a scared looking model on the cover of at least one Dutch travel magazine.

 

Via Ferrata Via Ferrata

 

After two hours of climbing we reached the top, 170m higher than where we started. The absolutely breathtaking view over the mountains made it all worthwhile. For those not spooked by heights, it’s a wonderful experience and a great way to work as a team (as you have to wait for those in front and behind you). Don’t attempt this with a group that isn’t at least somewhat fit. You need a bit of muscle-power for a successful climb and (obviously) you can’t stop halfway through. For more info, check www.altitudextrem.com.

 

Grand times in a grand valley

After our ordeal in the mountains, we had lunch in Restaurant Ca la Núria (www.restaurantcalanuria.cat), 15km from Andorra. It’s a cozy little place with a mountain view offering delicious food served in an elegant, delicate way. An absolute treat. After lunch, we took off for a nice walk into the surrounding La Cerdanya: a 40km long valley that’s partly Catalan partly French and receives the most hours of sunshine in the whole of Spain. It’s also supposed to have the biggest diversity of flowers and butterflies in Europe. And it must be said: the scenery was brilliant. Beautiful wooded hills and a view over the vale that stretched for kilometers, while puffy, cotton-candy-like clouds gently glided through the bluest of skies. There’s a ton of things to do here: hiking, mountain biking, skiing in winter, cave exploring, hot air balloon rides, fantashistory walks (on which you’ll learn about the region’s history via iPads), you name it. A good place to start if you’re looking for more info is: http://www.prullans.net. It’s the site of our resort in Prullans, the village we stayed in.

 

Cerdanya Hotel Muntanya

 

We spent the evening at Hotel Muntanya & Spa (www.prullans.net/hotel) a cozy place looking a bit Austrian – it is a ski-resort, remember – with a brand new wellness centre. Nothing beats drinking fresh juice in an outdoor jacuzzi with a view over the mountains after a great but exhausting day. We went to bed with a cup of Ron Cremat, a literally burning alcoholic drink made from rum, coffee, cinnamon and sugar. A good night’s rest was the logical consequence.

 

...And we’re riding a railway to heaven

NúriaThese – freely adapted – Led Zeppelin lyrics were spooking through my head on the way to the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Núria: a popular place of pilgrimage and an even more popular ski resort sited at an altitude of around 2000m. We climbed about 800m into the mountains starting in Ribes de Freser, and we did it all on a scenic rack railway ride. You go through a series of rock tunnels before being overwhelmed by a visual spectacle of steep mountain flanks, green vales, loose rocks and seas of colorful flowers. Very picturesque! Once there, behind a dammed lake, you’ll find the sanctuary, which also contains the Hotel Vall de Núria, with a completely new wing and four meeting rooms, including an auditorium with 144 seats (www.valldenuria.cat). After lunch, we made our way down again, on foot. 9,75km down little stone paths running next to deep cliffs, flowery meadows, thundering waterfalls, green forests and the occasional wild sheep startled by our presence. The route is wonderful, be it somewhat tricky in parts. Not for some braver, fitter men who race this path uphill via virtual checkpoints. The current record time stands at about 42 minutes. We managed to do it in over 3 hours. Downhill. Humbling numbers, but it didn’t matter. At least we took the time to admire the surroundings.

 

Núria Núria Núria

 

We would spend the night in my favorite venue of the trip: La Rectoria de Sant Miquel de Pineda: a splendidly restored 12th century rectory in the La Garrotxa Natural Park, with a cute little church next to it. It’s owned by Roy, a Scotsman and an ex-chef in several 5-star hotels in Edinburgh, and his lovely Catalan wife Goretti. The interior is stunning: centuries old wooden floors, a sunlit veranda to dine in, a comfy lounge containing parts of the original kitchen and 7 rooms with some modern touches but still oozing the original charm. There’s a ton of books to be found around the house that can be read freely. Being run by a Scotsman, whiskey tastings are of course offered as well. Not that far from either Barcelona, the mountains or the coast, it’s the perfect place for a quiet retreat or a small meeting. I felt right at home. www.larectoriadesantmiquel.com

La Rectoria La Rectoria

 

Bikes and Beaches

The next morning, we continued our journey from the mountains to the Sea. We visited the La Garrotxa Volcanic Area National Park (http://www.turismegarrotxa.com/). It’s the only volcanic area in mainland Spain (there are some famous ones on the Canary Islands though) and it’s a very popular tourist destination. It welcomes about 200,000 visitors each year.  The park covers an area of 130 km2 and you can still see the shape of the volcanoes. Don’t worry about surprise eruptions ruining your afternoon walk: all of them are considered either dead or sleeping now. Walking is the main activity inside the park. There are no steep climbs (unless you want to get on top of the volcanoes of course), bikebut the rock-riddled paths go up and down gently, through grassy fields and fresh birch forests.  The shade of the trees was most welcome, since we were experiencing the hottest day of the year so far.

As the sun was climbing to its highest point, we thought: why not go for a 30 km bike ride and shorten our lives with a couple of years? No I kid, it was a very pleasant route along a – mostly shaded – old railroad track between the cities of Olot and Girona: the Ruta del Carrilet (http://www.viesverdes.org). It’s a quiet ride, offering nice views and some challenging climbs. The best part is that it ends with several kilometers of downhill racing: my favorite kind of cycling. The company providing the bikes is called Centre Logistic de Bicicletes Olot and arranges a variety of other bicycle rides and activities throughout the region. For more info, check: www.atma.cat.

After a copious but tasty lunch at Restaurant Hotel Sant Marçal in Amer (www.hotelsantmarsal.com), we were ready to complete our last physical mission of the day before driving to the Costa Brava: kayaking 7,5 km on the Ter river (www.kayakdelter.com). The water was very calm and shallow, and the scenery was beautiful and peaceful. Almost no buildings could be seen from the water. The area is inhabited by a surprising number of birds, mammals and reptiles: stalks, raptors (the birds, not the dinosaurs), kingfishers, otters and tortoises. A nice way to finish an eventful day. After our drive to the seaside, we had dinner in Hotel Miramar in Llafranc (www.hterramar.com), on the boardwalk next to the soothing waves of the Mediterranean. It would be another quiet night...

The Costa Brava is quite a sight in some parts. We discovered that during a GPS walk along the coast, which was surprisingly rocky and steep at some spots. After the Olympics in ’92, all the  little villages along the coastline were connected via a 150 km walking path. It’s called the “Camí de Ronda” named after a pathway originally used by the Guardia Civil to protect the people against pirates from Corsica (hence the word Corsairs). All the old fortresses still in place are a nice testament to this history. It’s another very nice walk. The coastal cliffs, the trees that only seem to stop growing when they reach the water, the many little bays, the archways in the villages, the glittering sea and of course the many tanning beauties on the beach: there are worse places to go for a stroll. A lot of other activities on land or water can be organized here as well. The best organization to contact if you’re interested is Outdoor Empordà (www.outdoor-emporda.com).

 

Costa Brava Costa Brava
Costa Brava Costa Brava

 

We had our departure lunch in one of the more special venues of the trip: a family run hotel with a marvelous view over Calella de Palafrugell. Hotel Sant Roc (www.santroc.com) is situated on a cliff overlooking the sea and the village. The rooms are nice and cozy and the two meeting rooms can host around 70 people for events. The tree-shaded garden and the beautiful terrace made for a perfect decor to say goodbye to Catalonia. We’ll be seeing it again.

 

The Verdict:

Catalonia is a versatile destination, especially for those looking for a more active programme or incentive. The Pyrenees and the Pre-Pyrenees offer a magical decor for walking, climbing, biking and skiing trips. Just a few hours away lies the Mediterranean. You could have a mountain as well as a beach trip with just a relatively short ride in between. The natural environment is at times simply stunning and houses a number of interesting venues of all types. Combine all of this with proximity and accessibility and you have a great destination for sporty or relaxing teambuilding sessions. And we didn’t even go to Barcelona!

For more info on the various possibilities of Catalonia, contact the Catalan Tourist board in Brussels via: promotion.bnl@act.cat or go to www.catalunya.com.

The flight we took was offered by Vueling (www.vueling.com).

 

 

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