Catalonia's Paradores captivate the soul... And the taste buds
The north east corner of Spain is a treat for foodies who like a bit of history, discovers Claire Cromie
A gale sent waves churning and crashing noisily onto the rocks below us, disrupting the usually calm waters of the Mediterannean. But all was calm at Aiguablava.
We had arrived late on a dark night and fallen asleep to the sound of the rain battering the coast, unaware of the magnificent panoramic views that awaited us the next morning. Daylight brought the revelation that our hotel was perched atop a rocky peninsula jutting into the sea, the building's vast windows exposing us to the sublime seascape.
We were in Catalonia, on a tour of the Spanish Paradores. Spain has been restoring historic buildings and turning them into luxury hotels for decades, an ingenious idea that has helped preserve all kinds of failing structures.
Today there are 93 government-owned sites as part of the chain Paradores de Turismo de España, most of them in ancient monasteries, medieval castles and Moorish forts. Each is unique. Many of them are jaw-dropping.
While it is one of the more modern Paradores, if peaceful walks in cliff-hanging gardens and wonderful views over hidden coves are your thing, Aiguablava is heavenly. And like all the Paradores, its restaurant makes the most of the local cuisine. Sample the prawns from Palamós and the anchovies from La Escala.
The beaches make this a fantastic location for a holiday in Costa Brava. But an entire day could be dedicated to walking around nearby Bergur, an eclectically colourful town thanks to its intense relationship with Cuba.
Many townsfolk emigrated to Cuba in the 19th century, our guide explained, and the ostentatious 'colonial' style houses they built upon their return still decorate Bergur today. Narrow streets, a medieval castle and tales of pirates and coral searchers all combine to create a rich history.
The area is also home to the world's most famous surrealist, Salvador Dali, who was born in Figueres and used the rugged Catalan landscape as his inspiration. A few hours (you'll need it) in his enthralling personal masterpiece, the Dali Theatre-Museum, will put to bed any notions of museums being mundane.
In Vic, a city said to represent the spirit of Catalan rural life, a sausage-making class in a charcuterie had our group in hysterics. Smutty jokes ensued, but this was a fantastically fun way to take in the unique Catalan cuisine.
This university city comes to life at night and on market days, when crowds throng to the main square – enclosed by a multicoloured cluster of buildings where Catalan independentists hang the Estelada (lone star flag) from balconies.
The gastronomy continued at our Parador that night. I indulged in oh-so-tender roast duck in a blackberry jus at Vic-Sau, a former Catalan farmhouse built halfway between the Pyrenees and the Meditteranean. Beautiful rooms with grillwork balconies and comfortable lounges offer unsurpassable views over the Sau reservoir and the imposing cliffs that surround it.
Beneath the artificial lake lies the former town of Sant Romà de Sau. The Church of Sant Romà is still visible when the water level is low and on this winter's day, I could just about see the top of the belltower peaking out of the shimmering water. Connecting to the River Ter, the incredibly still, myrtle green water snakes around the land and is a popular spot for kayaking in the warmer months.
On higher, more isolated ground we found the Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, one of the leading monuments of Catalan Romanesque architecture. For those with a passion for religion or architecture, a guided tour is a must, but a leisurely walk around this monastery would be just as good for the soul. A word of warning, however, as is the case at many tourist attractions in the region, information boards are in Catalan. Don't count on your Spanish!
The next day we discovered 'volcanic cuisine' at Cal Sastre, a hotel and restaurant in the medieval village of Santa Pau. It has a wonderfully serene country feel to it, helped by the roaring fire and delicious house red, but is located right in the heart of the natural park of the Garrotxa's Volcanic Zone.
Natural, regional products are the tradition here and the local speciality, Santa Pau beans, are a treat. The volcanic soil in which they are grown gives them a fine flavour and texture, so unique they even have a fair to celebrate it each year. Who knew beans could be so scrumptious?
Expect unusual combinations, such as a lollipop of chocolate-coated foie or canelloni-stuffed duck with truffle cream sauce.
Catalonia's landscape and museums are sprinkled with Romanesque art and architecture. In Cardona, our Parador was a grand medieval castle inside a fortified 9th century enclosure. With its stone walls, Romanesque church, legends and ghost stories (stay in haunted room 712 if you dare) this is a classic venue, perfect for a romantic retreat.
I clambered to the top of the castle's tower on a crisp and clear morning, from where my view panned from the Pyrenees in the distant north to the Salt Mountain right before me, a formerly profitable mine which this fortress was built to defend.
A mass rising 100 metres above the ground, the salt was left by the evaporation of seawater through the closure of the Mediterranean Sea more than 30 million years ago. Book a tour and you will be taken through the mountain to view its spectacular stalactites and stalagmites.
Getting there: Claire Cromie was a guest of MAP Travel (maptravel.ie or tel: 00353 1 878 3111 for details on individual Paradores and escorted tours). Rates at these Paradores range from €64 to €110pp per night. Nearest airports are Barcelona or Girona.
What do do there: Lunch and demonstration of sausage-making at Ca la Teresona, Vic, maximum €25pp. For further information on this and other activities, visit spain.info or tel: 00353 1 635 0281 to arrange guided tours.