If you love visiting Barcelona and the Costa Brava, but have started to develop a been-there-done-that attitude toward the big city and coastal pleasures of Catalunya, you might want to consider delving deeper into the region.
The interior of Catalunya offers a distinctively exotic edge that’s anything but a watered down version of Spanish and French cultures.
Plus, the food is exceptionally tasty, and the activities are super fun, and there’s a range of comfy accommodation too.
I fell hard for the dynamic scenery, the vast forests and the wide-open spaces.
My route by car yielded so many unexpected vistas, with some of the most striking sights reminding me of a mix of tours in the American southwest, the Swiss Alps, and the Scottish Highlands.
Winding up and down mountains, in and out of clouds, zipping through valleys and gorges with rushing rivers and snow-capped peaks in view were memorable pleasures in their own right.
My adventures began in the city of Lleida, where I arrived via a two-hour train ride from Sants Station in the Catalan capital.
The capital of its province (also called Lleida) with a population of around 140,000, Lleida is by far the biggest city around.
During the last weekend of May – when I happened to be there – the population swells by several thousand more, with people attending the annual Aplec de Caragol, a weekend celebration centred round eating lots and lots of snails.
In addition to what was cooking at the festival grounds, I found snails to be a prominent feature on restaurant menus around town and across the province.
I had lovely meals at Celler del Roser in Lleida’s Old Town and the cosy Restaurant TK near the train station. I especially enjoyed my plate of sausage, artichoke, potato, peppers and aubergine at the latter. Located across from my hotel (Hotel Rambla Lleida), it was conveniently placed for a quick breakfast with coffee too.
Of course, there were loads of non-snail related things to do in Lleida, including the Knights Templar Castle of Gardeny and the huge hilltop Seu Vella cathedral, featuring sweeping views across the plains to the Pyrenees.
After three nights in Lleida, I picked up a hire car and headed to the mountains for an overnight in the tiny village and ski resort of Espot.
The gateway to the glorious Aigüestortes and Estany de Sant Maurici National Park – Catalunya’s only national park – Espot was the very definition of quietude during my off-season stay at the quaint two-star Hotel Roya. I slept like a log in silence and fresh mountain air.
I set out in the morning on a pre-arranged 4X4 excursion into the park. There was still snow on the ground at the highest accessible levels of the national park. Trekking through the snow (in shorts) was certainly interesting – and well worth it.
A post-hike lunch of cold roast venison leg salad and locally caught trout with vegetables back in the village, at Restaurant Juquim, was a fortifying end to my Espot stopover.
Next up was a drive through the town of Gerri de la Sal en route to Sort.
Housed in a disused though impeccably restored salt warehouse, Gerri de la Sal’s museum imparts the unusual tale of how this small mountain community prospered by producing edible salt from the mineral rich waters of the nearby Noguera Pallaresa River.
Across the river from the village is the Monastery of Santa Maria.
Much of the ancient site is in ruins, but the relatively new addition of a 12th century Romanesque-style church with its three-storey belfry and the remains of baroque paintings was a treasure to admire.
A few miles upriver from Gerri de la Sal was Sort.
It was pouring rain when I arrived, but the weather seemed to suit the snug feel of the town. I was there for mostly indoor pursuits anyway – among them was a peek inside the Camí de la Llibertat (‘Path to Freedom’) Prison Museum.
During World War II, Sort was a safe outlet for tens of thousands of refugees escaping Nazi Germany and occupied France via the Path to Freedom trail through the Pyrenees.
This museum, set in a former prison, shares the story of many of those fleeing persecution and the surprising role it played during WWII and even earlier.
Gaining perspective on the historical significance of Sort – a name that means ‘luck’ in Catalan – came with gaining my appetite. And luckily I was a short stroll away from the best meal I had while in Catalunya.
On the ground floor of a 150 year-old former hotel, Café Pessets was a welcoming eatery with a ‘km 0’ approach to tapas made with locally produced, seasonal ingredients, paired with regional wines.
The tastiest of several dishes I had was a soft baked egg with mushrooms, cream and truffles. A plate of patatas bravas with quince aioli was a winner too.
I called it a night at rustic little Hotel l’Alcova in Montardit de Baix. As in Espot, total stillness and no light or sound pollution added up to a most restorative sleep.
My last night was spent in La Seu d’Urgell.
About 30 miles from Andorra, this compact medieval city features one of Europe’s most ornate and best preserved Romanesque cathedrals, with amazing artefacts in its museum.
The cathedral serves as the seat of the Bishop of Urgell, who is one of Andorra’s co-princes (the other, in this odd anomalous arrangement, is the President of France).
A roam around town during its weekly – and very food focused – street market had me hankering to eat. I decided to head to artisan cheesemakers, Formatgeria Mas d’Eroles, for a dreamy cheeseboard and salad lunch comprised of cheeses produced on site (and mostly with milk from Mas d’Eroles’s own dairy), paired with locally brewed craft beer.
Working off my hearty lunch, I made my way back to town for an afternoon of white water rafting at the ‘safe adventure’ activity centre, Rafting Parc.
When Barcelona was named the host of the 1992 Summer Olympics, this park was developed specifically for a number of water sports.
I had a blast rafting along the same purpose-built white water channel where Olympic athletes competed and continue to train today.
For my final night, I checked in at Castell de Ciutat.
A Relais & Chateau property on a hilltop, with sweeping views across La Seu d’Urgell and its snowy peak backdrop, this luxury hotel had fabulous spa facilities, including a jacuzzi that’s perfect for taking in the view while soaking aching muscles.
Dinner there later was an elegant affair, followed by another night of profoundly sound sleep.
Who knew a roadtrip through Catalunya could be so relaxing?
Where to stay in Catalunya and how to get there:
I stayed at a few places along the the way: Hotel Rambla Lleida has rooms starting at £43, Hotel Roya in Espot’s rooms start at £64, Hotel l’Alcova in Montardit de Baix’s rooms start at £80 and Castell de Ciutat in La Seu d’Urgell has rooms starting at £107.
I hired my car in Lleida from Avis, which offers day rates from £6, and dropped it off without trouble at the airport in Barcelona.
Flights from London to Barcelona are plentiful and take about two hours. I flew with Vueling, which offers one-way fares from Gatwick for as little as £19.99.
For more ideas for activities and itineraries in the Province of Lleida, go to aralleida.cat.