Category Archives: Out of town breaks

The Empordà

Spain’s Tuscany

Mention Catalonia to the average traveller and they will right away think of Barcelona, Gaudí and the cavas and wines of the Penedés. But few of the millions of visitors who choose to explore the wonders of Spain every year will have discovered the gem that is L´Empordà, a region encompassing the whitewashed village of Cadaqués by the French border and the Pyrenees to the fishing port of Palamós on the Costa Brava and inland to its medieval towns, Figueres with its Dalí museum and vineyards producing some of the most refreshing new wines of Catalonia.

In little more than an hour from the centre of Barcelona, you can find yourself in the heart of this comarca, described by some as Spain’s Tuscany, a countryside peppered with medieval villages among rolling farmland, with easy access by high speed rail, road and air (most of the region is within a one-hour drive of Girona airport).  L´Empordà´s fertile lands, fed by the mighty river Ter, and its strategic location have created a prosperity over the centuries that has created a host of Romanesque churches, medieval villages and impressive ornate stone masías (landowner mansions).

Its Mediterranean shore encompasses the popular Costa Brava, but even many of those who have discovered picturesque seaside locations from Dalí’s Cadaqués to Calella de Palafrugell for their sandy beaches and stunning coastlines, where pine trees cling to the sides of steep rock cliffs overhanging the clear waters of thousands of small coves, might not have ventured inland to explore the hilltop fortified towns of Pals and Torroella de Montgrí or the majestic stone-built villages of Peratallada, Ullastret or San Martí Vell, redolent with the history and character of L´Empordà.

Something for everyone

Visitors to the region are spoiled for choice, with the Phoenician and Greco-Roman ruins of Emporias, from which it takes its name, dominating the expansive sheltered bay and adjoin the wetlands that represent one of the most important migratory stopping points for birds in the whole of the Mediterranean. Kayaking, hillwalking, cycling, diving around the marine reserve of the Medes Islands, fabulous local gastronomy, ceramics, crafts, art galleries and museums in barely discovered small towns and villages, all cater to the multiple tastes of the cultural tourist and reward them handsomely.

For followers of Salvador Dalí  the trail does not just include the Figueres museum and Cadaqués, but the castle he shared with Gala at Pùbol, with other unspoilt villages such as Madremanya and La Pera within a few kilometres. Many other artists have come from, or made a home in, the Empordà  but so have writers, such as the iconic Catalan literary figure Josep Plà and Tom Sharpe British author of the bestselling Wilt.

It is well worth finding out for yourself what has made it such an inspirational place and exploring the many gems that even many Catalans haven’t discovered.

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Calella de Palafrugell

The Fishing village that turned posh

Calella de Palafrugell is one of those places that largely escaped foreign travellers’ attention until well into the 60s and remained one of those hidden jewels of the Costa Brava for much longer. Even in the 90s, a travel writer for one of the London broadsheets who discovered it at the time wrote effusively about its natural beauty but wouldn’t reveal the name as he thought too many visitors would spoil it.

Port-Bo, Calella

Port-Bo, Calella

The secret is out, with National Geographic declaring it a Top 10 World Destination in 2012, but it still remains pretty much unspoilt – at least its seafront, broken up into small coves and stretches of beach of various sizes. You will no longer see the fishermen’s nets stretched out on the beach to dry and mend when the first tourists discovered Calella, or the dairy farm that stood behind the church on what was then the edge of the village, but the houses that line the front, both the more modest ones of the old fishing families and the more sumptuous mansions of the bourgeoisie from nearby towns who went to spend the summer in Calella, have been preserved. At one end of the largest beach, the Canadell, stands La Torre, a 17th century stone tower where a bonfire was lit to warn of the impending arrival of pirates and allow the villagers to retreat to the walled safety of Palafrugell, some 3 miles inland, until the intruders had sailed off with whatever spoils they could find.

A jewel of natural beauty

The village fills up in July and August, with many Barcelonese who have holiday homes there as well as tourists from abroad, so the best time to enjoy Calella and have it pretty much to yourself, with only a scattering of outsiders, is late spring and early autumn (when the sea is warmest). With its seafront streets pedestrianised, it is the ideal place to takeChildren playing at Port-Bò

children and let them run wild on the sand and rocks while you sit at one of the café terraces taking in the natural beauty and azure tones of sea and sky. And there are plenty of walks along the coastal Camí de Ronda, either towards the neighbouring resort of Llafranch and beyond to the promontory and prehistoric settlement of Sant Sebastiá, crowned by a lighthouse, or to the tiny cove of El Golfet, where you can sit on a beach in natural surroundings that you can imagine have remained largely unchanged since the time of hunter gatherers. Further along is the stone castle of Cap Roig, with its internal cloister, built by an eccentric Russian count and his English wife, who designed and landscaped a botanic garden among the cliffs that fall away to the sea. In summer it hosts an international festival that brings in performers such as Mark Knopfler or Katie Melua, as well as opera stars and some of the best known Spanish acts.

View from the Canadell

View from the Canadell

Some 10 km. down the coast is the fishing port of Palamós, where a wonderful variety of fish and seafood in the area is landed every morning to be sold in local markets and restaurants. Going inland from Calella into the Empordà, you will find medieval villages and Romanesque churches, art galleries and some of the best gastronomic experiences to be found anywhere in rural Spain. The walled town of Pals is a 20 minute drive away and Palafrugell itself has a Sunday market and a central square with a choice of cafés and restaurants where you can relax in the sunshine. And it also boasts Europe’s largest wine and liquor warehouse, Grau, where you can stock up from a huge range of wines, cavas and spirits. A further 15 km inland is the old Episcopal See of La Bisbal where dozens of shops display a treasure trove of classical Catalan ceramics as well as modern dinner porcelain that is sold around the world.

Calella has inspired painters and writers and was also the inspiration for Catalan singer-songwriter Juan Manuel Serrat’s 70s song Mediterràni, an ode to the distinctive landscape of rocky outcrops to which pine trees and cacti cling and golden coves bathed by transparent waters. It is an experience hard to describe in words, music or even images, but no visitor fails to be delighted by this gem of the Mediterranean.

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