So what do you know about Catalunya? Many of you will have been to Barcelona and it’s a fabulous and vibrant city. Maybe you’ve taken a holiday in the Costa Brava and been fortunate enough to discover one of its beautiful and romantic coastal towns such as Calella de Palafrugell? Maybe south to the Costa Daurada? But what more?
Well, there is plenty more to Catalunya if you are brave enough to hire a car and set off on a voyage of discovery. There are natural parks in every direction, fabulous wine regions to explore, and, of course, great food wherever you decide to stop.
I’ve been coming to Catalunya for years and I love the place but I’d largely restricted my explorations to Barcelona and the Costa Brava. However, on a recent jaunt my eyes were opened to what some of the rest of Catalunya has to offer.
My latest trip took me to the province of Lleida which is a great area for exploring the great outdoors of Catalunya. There are a range of activities on offer to satisfy all from the casual walker to the full on adrenaline nut; trekking, hiking, mountain biking, canyoning, paragliding, white water rafting (see my other post on Get active and explore Catalunya – Go for it!). But this is also an area with a rich in history, with beautiful and historic towns and villages to explore.
Both Solsona or La Seu d’Urgell are historic places that merit exploration and I visited them on this trip. Just strolling around these two towns affords a window into their past and traditions. Old and beautiful buildings have beams protruding from under their roofs and project garish carved faces that gurn down at you from above. There are shops and delis that seem unchanged by time but sell fabulous local products and crafts. Their cathedrals are impressively grand and the museums provide you with a guided tour of the history of the area as well as some anthropological fascinations.
If you can time it right, then visiting the walled town of Solsona at carnival or during the town festival (festa major), in September, are trips to add to your bucket list – they’ve been added to mine! Both events are famous for ‘Gigantes’ – the giant people and animals popular at Catalan festivals – and both celebrate and mock the town’s tradition and culture. And then there is the hanging of the donkey. Don’t worry, no donkeys are harmed in the telling of this tale, but a quirky feature of carnival relives the ultimately fatal hoisting of a donkey to the roof of the clock tower to help the donkey eat some fresh grass. It’s only a fable but it is now a key event in the yearly calendar and also gives the people of Solsona their name; the Matarrucs – the donkey killers.
We also visited Santuari del Miracle, a spiritual centre just outside Solsona, for a fabulous lunch and then to visit the church which contains an exceptional baroque alter piece which is quite staggering. There are some beautiful churches and cathedrals scattered throughout the region and the Romanesque churches in Vall de Boi have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Driving north from Solsona the roads become a little steeper and the views more dramatic as you make your way up into the foothills of the Pyrenees. We headed to the dramatically located mountain town of Sant Llorenç de Morunys in Vall du Lord which is as beautiful as it is difficult to pronounce (San yo-rence de mo-runch, or something like that!). It’s a fabulous location for exploring the hills and mountains that surround it and there are walks to suit all abilities from low level ambles from the town, to full on mountain days, to peaks such as the mighty and magical Pedraforca mountain which is just to the north.
We visited the Zoo Pirineu which was a short drive from Sant Llorenç de Morunys and a perfect half day out, especially for families. The zoo is situated below a cliff face where breeding vultures nest throughout the summer and can be seen gliding around the mountains. Stania, who runs the zoo, breeds falcons and the zoo rehabilitates and acts as a conversation centre for injured or abandoned animals. The main draw are the free flying live animal displays where birds fly centimetres above your head or even land on top! You can pet a fox, feed a raven and see eagles flying just yards from you. All of this is done with an environmental education programme being delivered, so, again, a good place to visit if you have children.
If you need a break from walking, either from the hills or the streets of Solsona, then there are plenty of spas in the area like the Salí de Cambrils which has a salt pool that is 33% salt and therefore like the dead sea. It was a little chilly on my visit at the end of the season but I braved swimming shorts and floated on top of the water, watching the vultures flying high above – and maybe they were watching me. There is also a sundeck so it’s a great spot for a sunny day in the mountains if you’d like to take it easy for a day.
One of the things I noticed on the trip was how in tune people are here with their environment and resources. In all of the hotels and restaurants we visited or stayed at, the food was locally sourced and every effort was made to minimise the impact of man made development on the environment.
Accommodation choices are plentiful. We stayed in two lovely boutique hotels; La Garriga del Castelladral near Solsona and Cal Joan del Batlle in Vall du Lord as well as some more basic mountain hotels which walkers will be more than familiar with. These are blessed with both rustic charm and hearty meals needed to provide sustenance for days in the hills. I also noticed plenty of camping and ‘glamping’ sites around this part of Catalunya, as well as a network of casas rurales – cottages and country houses that you can book in the same way that cottage breaks work in the UK.
All of this is just a flavour of what I saw; there is still much more on offer, such as wine tourism, foodie trails, as well as as everything that Barcelona and the coast have to offer. See my other post for more on the outdoor activities in the area. Take my advice and get out there and experience Catalunya!
I travelled courtesy of the Catalan Tourist Board so I thank them for inviting me to their beautiful country. In terms of practicalities the Catalunya website and the regional tourism office websites for Solsonès or Ara Lleida are good starting points for researching holidays to this area, and when you are there, the staff in the tourist offices will be more than happy to provide you with plenty of information on activities in the area.