One of my favourite things about travelling is making new discoveries; something that’s becoming harder and harder to do now that travel is more affordable and accessible than it’s ever been before.
But on a recent trip to Catalonia, where I spent three days hiking in and exploring the Province of Girona, I discovered places that I knew absolutely nothing about before arriving; places that I’d been able to find very little information about online, but places that lifted my spirits, warmed my heart, and renewed my sense of curiosity and wonder.
One of my absolute favourite places I visited was the medieval town of Santa Pau. Yet, in Lonely Planet’s latest Spain guide, Santa Pau only gets a very brief mention in relation to the Parc Natural De La Zona Volcànica De La Garrotxa:
“…the most interesting area [of the park] is between Olot and the village of Santa Pau.”
It doesn’t mention what a picturesque, perfectly preserved medieval town its fortified walls encircle, that the castle here was first mentioned in documents dating back to the 10th century or that the town was granted protected heritage and artistic status in 1971, and what a tranquil setting it boasts amidst fertile, nutrient rich farmland and rolling green hills.
It took me right back to the three months I spent in Peru four years ago, when Stu and I spent many occasion deciding where to stop next based solely upon which village, town or city was located at the mid point between the place we were leaving and our final destination. Sometimes we’d end up in a busy, characterless city or in a ramshackle village where we struggled to find food and accommodation. But other times we’d stumble upon absolute gems like Huancavelica, Leimebamba, and Ayacucho, and be reminded of exactly why we chose to take the path less trodden.
Because, whilst city breaks do afford us the opportunity to make new discoveries – especially if they’re city breaks to destinations that still remain largely under the radar as far as mainstream tourism is concerned – it is definitely more difficult to find unique and authentic experiences in places that have been visited a million times over. You need to spend a little longer there and dig a little deeper to really find something worth writing home about.
And when you have to fit your travels around a full-time job, city breaks end up forming a large chunk of the trips you take. They still allow you to travel frequently but without using up too many of your vacation days in one go. Last year four of the seven international trips I took were city breaks.
This year I decided to do things differently. I booked a self-guided solo hiking adventure through Catalonia over the Easter bank holiday. I’d fly into Girona and jump on a public bus to Olotwhere I’d follow some hiking trails around the Garrotxa Natural Park, and onwards to the medieval towns of Santa Pau and Besalu, and the village of Esponellà. If you’ve heard of any of those places, you’re doing better than I was before I left England!
I’m not going to do a full step-by-step run down of my route (because that would probably be really boring and take forever), but what I will do is show you the kind of sights you’ll see and places you’ll experience, and tell you what you can expect in terms of the length of the hikes and difficulty levels and how easy the routes are to follow. I’ll also link to the particular self-guided hike I booked at the end of this post.
Day One: Olot and La Garrotxa Natural Park
I caught a public bus from Girona to Olot. I believe you can travel via Banyoles, but I caught a direct bus which took around one hour and cost me just over €7. Olot’s bus station is very close to the centre of Olot, but I was staying 2.7 kilometres from the bus station, close to the hiking trails on the outskirts of town.
Mas Can Blanc is set in a beautiful location in the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Nature Reserve, surrounded by trees and birdlife. Although the staff don’t speak a ton of English, they are friendly and hospitable, and serve up a wonderful traditional Spanish breakfast every morning (think breads, olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, chorizo-type meats, cheeses and Spanish omelette, as well as a selection of cakes and pastries).
There’s a lovely sun terrace, swimming pool (although it wasn’t open when I stayed; presumably too early in the season), and on-site parking, as well as bicycle hire. Food wise, there’s a couple of restaurants within about 50 metres of the property – La Deu and Font Moxina. I ate at La Deu and the food was very good and the staff both friendly and attentive. €15 will buy you three courses, a small bottle of water and a quarter of a bottle of wine (so, one glass basically).
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As I wasn’t covering massive distances on my hikes and the sun didn’t set until around 8pm at the time of year I visited (end of March/beginning of April), I could afford to have a nice leisurely start to my days. Breakfast was served from 8am, so I generally set my alarm around then and aimed to be fueling up for the day around 8:30am. I didn’t want to rush breakfast and I wanted to eat enough to keep me going until the evening (I had snacks with me though, if I did start flagging at any point).
As I began my journey and headed away from Olot, the clouds were looking rather ominous, which – whilst it made for some moody photographs – left me wondering whether I was actually going to need the waterproof jacket (which had been tried and tested in Kerala) and waterproof backpack cover I’d packed.
I came upon a small group of houses and a very friendly cat who insisted on rubbing itself up against my bare legs and distracting me from the important task of following directions. As a result I lost count of the number of right-hand forks I’d passed, and whilst I stood there pondering my next move, an elderly lady approached and began rattling away in Spanish and waving her walking stick towards a road that was just visible on the opposite side of the field by which we stood.
I’m guessing she must see a few lost hikers passing through her village.
I attempted, in my very rusty Spanish, to confirm that she was definitely pointing me in the right direction,
“La próxima calle a la derecha es para Fageda d’en Jordà, sí?
She nodded and continued to wave her walking stick. That was good enough for me.
The next part of the hike took me uphill along a tarmac road. As I looked back (because when you’re hiking its always important to remember to look back as well as in the direction you’re headed) I was rewarded with spectacular views of Olot and of the snowcapped peaks of the Pyrenees.
The road climbed gradually and although there was still quite a bit of cloud around, the further I walked the more the sun was desperately trying to break through it, creating shadows on the pavements below me.
I walked through tiny little hamlets and past farmhouses where horses grazed in nearby fields, until I reached the park’s visitor centre. If you don’t want to use nature’s bathroom then this is your last chance to take advantage of some proper facilities. You can also buy drinks and snacks here, fill up your water bottle and pick up some information about and maps of the local area.
From here the route took me into a wooded area where well-marked paths criss-crossed the terrain. The park isn’t solely a popular destination for hikers; I was passed by runners, mountain-bikers and the odd horse and cart carrying passengers who fancied a more leisurely experience.
The wooded area soon turned into a disorientating beech forest, where it was difficult to distinguish the correct route to follow between the trees. I rejoiced every time I reached a signpost whose direction – towards “Volca de Santa Margarida” – coincided with the one in my route notes.
My Fitbit alerted me to the fact that I’d done my 10,000 steps whilst I was navigating my way through the beech forests, and considering that at the time it was only 11:30am, I felt hopeful that I may be on target for a personal best by the end of the day. It put a bounce in my step, which I definitely needed for the next part of the hike.
After exiting the beech forest all too briefly, the route then took me back into the woods via an inconspicuous dirt path beside a gated country house, red and white markings signalling the continuation of the GR-2. The path immediately turned rocky and started to climb uphill steeply, an uneven tangle of tree roots (where the rain had, over time, washed the soil away) at my feet.
I emerged from the woods and rejoined the tarmac road, passing another stone farmhouse and a couple of horses before arriving at the Iglesia de Sant Miguel de Sacot shortly afterwards.
The church made a lovely rest stop, especially now that the sunshine had well and truly broken through the clouds. I snapped a few photographs and then sat on the church’s stone wall, sipping water and congratulating myself on what a good decision I’d made by choosing this trip.
After a short descent the path once again started climbing, and still I continued to follow signs pointing towards this seemingly elusive volcano.
I don’t really know what i expected to find when I arrived, but I think I assumed that it would be something a little more volcano-like than I did. What I really failed to consider was that this (and in fact all of Catalonia’s volcanoes) are very long extinct, the last eruption of both Santa Margarida Volcano and Croscat Volcano being approximately 11,500 years ago. As a result nature has had a very long time to try and reclaim the land. And reclaim mother nature has.
What’s left behind is a shallow but large (two kilometres in perimeter) grass-covered crater with a church at its core.
I also saw more people at this volcano than I had seen for the entirety of my journey to get here, which was kind of weird. Not a single English-speaking person though, which was nice and made the experience seem somehow more authentic.
As I climbed back out of the crater, it wasn’t far to the next volcano. I followed the main road for a short distance, passing this restaurant, which – had the sun been shining on its delightful little garden – I totally would’ve stopped at.
Instead I crossed the road and followed the gravel track leading uphill and into the forest. Volcá de Croscat was definitely more like the kind of volcano I expected to find, with steep rocky sides and a more defined crater shape, although this one appeared to have had more human intervention, with man-made steps and a clearly-marked pathway around the perimeter.
I’m not sure which I preferred, but I found myself wishing that I had a drone in order to find out how much better they both looked from above.
It was after leaving the volcano, at around the 15 kilometre mark, that everything went a bit wrong. Ok, that sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually was; what I actually mean is that my directions went a bit awry. My route notes said that I should go left at the gate of a walled private property; a private property that I never found. I walked for around two kilometres further than my notes dictated that I should, and then I retraced my steps to the last point in my route notes that I knew was correct, but I simply could not find the turning I was being instructed to take.
So I did the only thing I could think of doing and typed “Fageda d’en Jorda” into Google Maps. Google found me a route, and although it was not the route my notes wanted me to take, I had no choice but to follow it.
Distance of hike: 20.7kms / Full day distance covered, according to Fitbit: 28.46km (43,440 steps)
Day two: Santa Pau to Besalú
N.B If you’re hiking in Catalonia at this time of year, you’ll need layers. Whilst it was cold enough to warrant jeans and a hoody when I left this morning, by kilometre 12 I had stripped down to my t-shirt and a pair of shorts.
Today’s hike started in the medieval town of Santa Pau, a short taxi ride from Olot. As Santa Pau wasn’t one of the places I’d be staying in, I’d done zero research about the place, and to be honest there’s not a lot to be found online anyway. However, when I arrived I found somewhere so beautiful that I didn’t want to leave. I’ve actually written an entire blog post about the town I spent a little over an hour exploring (that’s how much I loved it!), which you can read here, but take my word for it that if you get the chance to go, just go. And if you’re in the area in January, don’t miss the town’s annual bean festival.
When I eventually managed to drag myself away from charming little Santa Pau, I headed north, following the GR-2 towards Sant Marti Vell. The route took me along quiet, winding tarmac roads, and through quaint little villages and vast stretches of agricultural farmland.
Unlike the day before, there wasn’t a single cloud in that beautiful blue sky today.
There also wasn’t a single other person around. Whereas yesterday I regularly passed other hikers and cyclists, today there was just me, myself and I.
Oh and a few cows who returned my curious stares, reminding me to keep my distance as I approached.
There were regular signposts indicating which route I should be following, and in-between the signposts were painted route markings, offering reassuring confirmation that I was on the right track.
These route markings would later prove to be both a blessing and a curse, but for the time being they were a useful jot on the landscape of telegraph poles and fence posts.
As I was walking through the Ser River Valley it wasn’t long before I could hear the sound of running water. Along with the sounds of cowbells and of birdsong, these were the only sounds I was surrounded by for the majority of the day.
My directions took me across a bridge over the Ser River, past a few mini waterfalls, and along trails that were now signposted towards “San Vicent del Sallent.”
Shortly after crossing the bridge, I reached the entrance gates to Mas Can Battle (which, incidentally, one of my favourite bloggers has written about in her Special Stays series), and the GR-2 route continued via a narrow footpath to the right of these gates, between the gravel track and the riverbed.
San Vicent del Sallent was actually a really pretty little village. However, it was one I was forced to walk through rather more quickly than I would’ve liked by a barking dog who was ferociously defending his territory in this otherwise peaceful corner of the Catalonian countryside.
Once I had reached a safe distance away from the dog, I decided against returning through the village to practice my ninja stealth techniques, and instead I snapped a couple of photos and continued on my merry way.
The path continued through woodland and across streams, beneath the shade of tall trees whose branches were reflected in the clear, shallow waters.
And then, after rejoining the tarmac road I continued on towards the village of “El Torn.”
Up to this point I’d heard frequent sounds of (what I assumed to be) lizards scurrying in the long grass beside the road upon which I walked, but I’d not reacted fast enough in order to catch sighting of one.
Fortunately lightning reflexes were not required to spot this fellow, who pretty much sat on this rock and posed for me – for as long as I chose to keep pressing that shutter.
Of course, everyone wanted a look in after that.
El Torn was another ridiculously pretty little village with a church at its core. But it was the last one I’d see today, because shortly after leaving the village, the GR-2 route took me off-road.
But not before yet another scary dog encounter, where a large Alsatian pretty much charged towards me, barking, at around 100 miles per hour. I was wearing shorts, I didn’t stand much of a chance if it decided to have a chomp at my leg.
Fortunately it decided not to, but fear had rooted me to the spot and I basically stood there smiling through gritted teeth, my heart pounding, whilst the dog’s owner apologised to me profusely for inadvertently taking several years off my life.
After I passed a small farm and before I reached an electricity pylon my route notes instructed me to leave the dirt track, taking a sharp left hand turn on to a footpath that zig-zagged its way uphill through woodland. For the next three and a half kilometres I was reliant solely on the odd painted marking on a rock or a tree trunk to guide my way. It was the longest three and a half kilometres I’d walked all day.
The further I walked and the more the distance between the markings grew, the more panic stricken I started to become. My little woodland track was not on Google Maps, there were no landmarks nearby (just a confusing mass of tall, densely planted trees) and I hadn’t seen a soul for hours. If I got lost in here I really didn’t know I would go about un-losing myself.
I tried to keep my speed up whilst at the same time paying full attention to my route notes, the path ahead, and the rocks and trees at either side of it.
When I finally came upon a t-junction with a wide gravel track, my notes instructed me to turn right, which I duly did. The wide gravel track turned into a wide rocky track and started descending. It was a gradual, steady descent, and one that I was very glad of after my three and a half kilometre uphill climb. I also felt so much better for being out of the woods (in the literal and metaphoric sense) and for enjoying my tranquil walk once again.
That is, until I realised that I’d walked well over the 0.12 kilometres I was supposed to have done before acting upon the next direction. It was okay though, my route notes advised me:
“Note: optionally you can continue along wide gravel track for 1 more km, until you reach WP40 (Ermita Sant Fruitos)”
But after one kilometre there was no sign of a church. I continued along a little further until I arrived at some kind of industrial or agricultural plant. That was most definitely not in my route notes.
I tried to load Google Maps without success.
The option of retracing my steps almost two kilometres up a steady incline over loose rocks and with zero shade didn’t really appeal, but I had no other choice.
When I reached the t-junction at the top, I realised that firstly it was not a t-junction, it was a staggered crossroads, and secondly that the right hand turn I’d just taken was marked with big red and white crosses, indicating that it was NOT the continuation of the GR-2. The left hand turn was signposted back to El Torn, which only left straight on. I didn’t recognise the place names recorded on the sign but I did recognise the red and white markings, so I followed.
For a while it seemed to put me back on track, It took me on to a steep downhill footpath through a small wooded gorge, which I accessed by taking a left hand turn off the wide gravel track – exactly as my route notes had stated.
But when I finally emerged at a t-junction, after much longer distance than was stated in my directions, it was with a main road and not a gravel track. And where my instructions wanted me to go left, the GR-2 markings wanted me to turn right.
Google Maps also wanted me to turn right, in order to walk in the direction of Besalú.
I turned right.
And I did arrive at Ermita Sant Fruitos (Sant Fruitos church), but not from the direction I should’ve done.
Eager to get back on track and not have to follow the main road all the way to Besalú (as this was the only route Google Maps could find), I ensured that I followed the correct road upon leaving the church, ignoring the turning on the left towards the farm, exactly as instructed.
However I never found the wide bend to the left, or the subsequent left hand turn on to a dirt track that headed uphill, so I took the only safe option I had and stuck to the main road for the final five kilometres to Besalú. Even this option didn’t see me arriving until gone 5pm; I didn’t really have enough time to consider any others.
I walked for almost an hour along that main road and didn’t see a single car. In fact I didn’t see much of anything apart from tarmac and tall trees.
So I was more than a little overjoyed when I finally caught my first glimpse of the medieval town of Besalú, set against a beautiful backdrop of the snowcapped Pyrenees.
My home in Besalú for the next two nights was the beautiful Casa Marcial. I was welcomed with a smile by a member of their staff who spoke excellent English and seemed genuinely interested to learn about all the hiking I’d done that day. My room was amazing, and was the size of a small apartment with five windows overlooking Besalú”s medieval streets.
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Although I hadn’t actually walked any further than the day before, I felt genuinely shattered (as I tried to illustrate in the photo below), but there was more exploring to be done outside. So I hopped in the shower and then set about acquainting myself with Besaulú at dusk.
Distance of hike: 19.35 kms / Full day distance according to Fitbit: 30.14 kms (45,581 steps)
Day Three: Besalú to Esponella
When I arrived into Besalú the day before, the town was ridiculously busy (a major shock to my system after spending almost the entire day alone), so I decided that – as breakfast at Casa Marcial wasn’t served until 9am – I would have an early morning photo-taking wander today, in order to capture the beauty of the medieval streets minus the people.
I’ll be writing a full post on what there is to see and do in Besalú very soon, so keep your eyes peeled!
Breakfast at Casa Marcial was a veritable feast of breads, meats, cheeses, cakes, pastries, cereals, dried fruit and nuts, yoghurt, fresh fruit, freshly squeezed juices, teas and coffee (the posh stuff in pods nonetheless!). The dining area overlooks the hotel’s sunny garden, with floor to ceiling windows on one side, making it a lovely place to linger for a while.
I lingered until around 10am. I had a much shorter hike ahead of me today, but I wanted to make it back to Besalú around mid-afternoon in order to finish my explorations of the town in the sunshine.
Today’s hike saw me walking through farmed fields and woodlands and alongside the River Fluvia. I started out taking the same route out of town as the one by which I’d arrived (which wouldn’t have actually been the same if I hadn’t gotten lost yesterday, but such is the way of self-guided hiking), climbing gradually but steadily along narrow, quiet tarmac roads, before turning off on to a dirt track that led into the woods.
In between the woodland trails vast fields of vibrant yellow rapeseed flowers covered the landscape. And in the distance were those beautiful, rugged snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees, just visible on the edge of the horizon.
I’m not sure whether it was the fact that the directions were easier to follow today or that I was just getting used to knowing how to read them, but I didn’t take a single wrong turn. I was a little concerned at one point that I was supposed to be crossing a main road that at that moment was quite a long way below the one upon which I was walking, but it all worked out perfectly fine as my road started to descend, snaking its way down towards the road beneath me.
I crossed that main road (eventually! God only knows how the local wildlife manages it) and followed a gravel track in the direction of “Camí de Esponella”
I passed farm buildings in varying states of repair and disrepair and a horse and cart carrying a small group of local people on board as I made my way downhill towards the Serinyà Dam.
The path hugged the banks of the river Ser, passing through the grounds of a farmhouse before continuing on towards the forest. As I approached the farmhouse I heard the sound of two or three dogs barking loudly. Here we go again, I thought. I only hoped that this lot were behind bars.
But it turns out that it wasn’t the dogs I needed to be worried about here; it was the geese.
As I neared the main farmhouse building, I spotted a small pen containing ducks and chickens and the odd cockerel. I was about to get my camera out to see if I could snap a few photos, when I saw the geese (who, incidentally, were’t in the pen).
I never realised geese were quite so big. Or maybe I’ve just never gotten quite so close to one before. But I decided against the farmyard photoshoot and concentrated on walking past the geese as quickly and carefully as I could.
However the closer I got the more territorial the geese got. Their necks stiffened, their beaks widened, and at the very moment that I was walking past, they charged.
I was literally two inches away from having my leg eaten by two very angry geese.
Once I reached the Esponellà Dam, it was just two kilometres further to the village of the same name, and the end of my 11.40 kilometre hike.
When I arrived in the village the sun was shining brighter than ever and I snapped a few photographs of Church Square and its surrounding streets.
However, after around five minutes, the skies turned from being the colour in the picture on the left, to the colour in the picture on the right. And then, just a couple of minutes after that, the heavens opened.
I sheltered in the doorway of an abandoned building down one of Esponellà’s side streets and watched flashes of lightening illuminating the sky, remembering to carefully count the seconds before a huge crash of thunder arrived. I literally could not have timed my arrival any better.
Even when you don’t arrive just before a huge thunderstorm, there’s not a lot to see or do in Esponellà, it’s tiny! But the Roca brothers have a restaurant here. Their Girona restaurant, El Celler De Can Roca, has been voted the World’s Best Restaurant in 2013, and again in 2015 (it currently holds third place, behind Eleven Madison Park (New York) and Osteria Franciscan (Modena)).
I didn’t go inside (primarily because I wasn’t in the remotest bit hungry after my huge breakfast) so I’ve no idea whether they have tables available for walk-ins or whether there’s a waiting list as long as the one in Girona if you want to dine here. But if you’re a bit of a foodie and you have some cash to splash, it’s definitely worth enquiring about securing a table.
Instead I grabbed a coffee at a little café-come-shop on the opposite side of the roundabout, and waited for my taxi to arrive to take me back to Besalú.
Distance of hike: 11.40 kms / Full day distance covered, according to Fitbit: 22.8kms (33,945 steps)
And that concludes my three-day hike through rural Catalonia. If you include the day I arrived in Olot and the day I travelled back to Girona in order to catch my flight home, then I actually spent five days in the region. But this still serves as proof that it is possible to get well and truly off the beaten path in a long weekend away from home.
So next time you’re about to book that city break, consider that for a similar price you could have your very own self-guided hiking adventure through some very beautiful, lesser-trodden parts of Europe instead.
**If you’ve never booked a trip with Explore before, you can get £50 of your first adventure by using the following code: 1422592 (correct May 2018)**
Items you’ll require for a self-guided hike
- A smartphone. Yes, most people have them now, but if you don’t, get one! Google Maps was my life saver on more than one occasion. As I’m on Vodafone, I get to ‘roam free’ in 40 countries across the globe (mainly in Europe), which means that I can use the call, text and data allowance on my UK plan, abroad. However if your network provider does not offer this ensure that you pick up a local sim card (and load it with enough data) at the airport when you arrive.
- A portable battery pack. Because, if you’re using Google Maps on your smartphone, the battery probably isn’t going to last all day. I have a solar powered one a friend of mine bought me that I carry as a back-up, but I primarily use this one due to its large capacity (when full it charges my current phone from flat around five or six times).
- A compass. Thankfully I never needed to use mine because I carried my portable battery pack with me and kept it charged, so I could use Google Maps (network coverage was pretty good where I was hiking), but this was the compass that the guy in Cotswold Outdoor recommended I buy.
- A good map. Although the hiking trails areal well marked around here, having a good map of the area always helps.
- A phrasebook. If you need to clarify directions, ask where you can find some water or food or a local shop, it helps to be able to converse with the locals. I do speak enough Spanish to get by, but I did carry a Catalan phrasebook with me. Lonely Planet also do a Spanish phrasebook if you need it.
- Refillable water bottle with filter. Obviously having your own reusable water bottle is better for the environment, but having a built-in filter on top means that – in the absence of drinking water – you can fill the bottle up from a local stream and all the impurities will be filtered out of it. I use this one from Grayl.
- Sunscreen. Don’t leave home without it. Even if you don’t burn, you still run the risk of getting skin cancer if you don’t use it. I like the spray versions as they’re easier to use, go further, and are non-greasy.
- Blister plasters. Even if your hiking boots are super comfortable and well and truly worn in, you can (and probably will if you walk far enough) get blisters. Take my word for it! It’s good to bring a mixed pack of different sizes to cover all eventualities.
- Snacks and electrolyte drink. I found a mini market in Olot the day before I started hiking and stocked up on hobnob-type breakfast biscuits, the nicest bacon-flavoured cone-shaped crisps I’ve ever tasted, and bananas. If you’re not used to lots of walking and long hikes, I’d recommend bringing some of these as well. They’re tablets which dissolve in water and help keep to you hydrated and your energy levels up. I use them before long runs.
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And here are some pretty images for your Pinterest boards 🙂