The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
I’ve found Europe’s greatest road trip…
… and it isn’t in the Alps. Catalonia, with its volcanic terrain and towns steeped in art history, is the perfect region to explore by car, says Adrian Bridge
Behind us, a lowering sun and the peaks of the Pyrenees. Up ahead, glimpses of valleys and vineyards. Anticipation of pleasures including the lush volcanic terrain of La Garrotxa, encounters with Salvador Dalí, and the sights and scents of the Mediterranean occupy our thoughts.
My wife and I love a good driving holiday. We love the freedom to be able to stop where and when we choose, and how the car is the constant in a whirl of changing scenes and sensations. Some of our most meaningful conversations have taken place on the road.
Our car – a convertible Volkswagen Golf – cries out for mountain roads in summer, and so our interest was piqued when we heard of a new way of exploring this dramatic part of the world. This is the Grand Tour of Catalonia, devised by the tourist authority and aimed at encouraging travellers to go beyond the hotspots of Barcelona and the Costa Brava. Those who do are promised some of the region’s lesser-known treasures – cultural, gastronomic, geological – while driving along a network of local roads offering spectacular vistas.
In its entirety, the route, which begins and ends in Barcelona, covers just over 1,243 miles. It is split into five stages, each highlighting different aspects of Catalonia, from its culinary creativity to its striking scenery. To do it all, you would need three to four weeks, but it is easily tackled in stages.
We found ourselves at the northeastern tip of Catalonia, in the town of Vielha, on our first day, up at the top of the Val d’Aran – a long valley famed for its distinctive stone villages. Our base was the Parador de Vielha, one of the collection of government-run properties located in distinctive buildings and settings all over Spain – in this case on a hill above town. In the distance, the peaks above Baqueira Beret, Spain’s most celebrated skiing area.
We wanted to explore the Val d’Aran before setting off – in particular the villages of Arties and Salardú, comOn plete with Romanesque churches and towers dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Also on our list was the Vall de Boí, gateway to the Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes, a treasure trove of forests, alpine pastures and lakes. As we strolled and took in the brilliant blues, more intrepid travellers hiked, biked, paddleboarded and scaled sheer rock faces around us.
We saluted their endeavours, and later toasted them during the course of a night-time trawl of Vielha’s tapas bars, tucking into boquerones fritos (fried anchovies) and berberechos vapor (steamed cockles), accompanied by a glass or two of local cava.
A high point – geographically – came on the third day, up in the lofty pastures of Baqueira Beret, where we gasped at the panorama of peaks, which, come winter, would be criss-crossed by skiers. Cars here were few and far between, but we were stopped in our tracks by the unforgettable sight of a herd of wild horses crossing the road.
As we began the slow descent to warmer climes, our destination was La Seu d’Urgell, a town on the Segre and Valira rivers, framed by the Cadí mountain range. A gateway to Andorra, La Seu is home to a truly stunning Romanesque cathedral – the only one in Catalonia – which takes pride of place in a complex containing a basilica, cloisters and a museum of sacred art and golden treasures.
We sipped cortados in a tree-lined square close to the town’s medieval heart, a short stroll from our quarters in another parador, this one built around its own 18th-century cloister.
No matter how enchanting the stops, driving holidays inevitably involve… well, driving. For us, the optimum amount of driving for any one day was about four and a half hours. All that time behind the wheel can wear thin, but here, at least, perseverance pays off. The stretch between La Seu d’Urgell and La Vall d’en Bas was one of those rewards: one late afternoon, the winding roads were almost completely clear, the mountain panoramas
Peak condition: a view of Vielha in the
Val d’Aran valley at the base of the Pyrenees
spellbinding. The sharp bends required full concentration, but if you enjoy driving, this is heaven.
We spent the night in a traditional farmhouse, offering a rustic retreat and a base from which to explore La Garrotxa, the most extensive volcanic terrain on the Iberian Peninsula. There are a number of excellent walking trails through what is surprisingly green terrain (the volcanoes are long dormant), and there is also a brilliant new museum of volcanology in the elegant old city of Olot, where it is Catalan flags – not Spanish – that flutter in the gentle breeze.
The next night was spent in Figueres, the birthplace – and resting place – of Salvador Dalí. It is home to many of his most celebrated artworks, such as the Mae West Lips Sofa and Galatea of the Spheres, a signature depiction of his wife, Gala. A cardboard effigy of the man himself – complete with trademark moustache – greeted us as we pulled up at the Duran, a hotel full of old-world charm and a favourite of the artist himself.
day six of our road trip, we headed east to the former Benedictine Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes, set high in the hills of the Cap de Creus Natural Park, just north of the picturesque seaside town of Cadaqués. The air was dry, the colours vivid, the heat intense – and the sound of crickets almost deafening. And then, in a gap through the pine trees, we saw it: the Mediterranean, that dazzling, shimmering, wonderful sea, at last within touching distance. We had come a long way to see this. After all, this is a drive where perseverance pays off.