Start your getaway in one of the most unique counties ('comarques') in Catalonia: La Garrotxa. Covered with the remains of a multitude of volcanoes, the area is full of natural beauty and numerous villages worth visiting. We suggest spending the afternoon at the Museu dels Volcans (Volcano Museum), on the ground floor of Torre Castanys in Olot. This centre belongs to the Science Department of the Garrotxa County Museum (Museu Comarcal de la Garrotxa), and even though it's relatively small, it has a lot of detailed and up-to-date information about these natural features and their cousins, earthquakes.
Once you've finished at the museum, head to the unique landscape of La Fageda d'en Jordà. You can spend a couple of hours wandering through the beech trees, and you should also make time to visit the La Fageda cooperative, which makes a popular range of yoghurts (18 types, in fact!) and other dairy-based desserts. You can see the facilities and the cows that belong to this organisation that has a significant number of employees with physical and mental disabilities.
Walking up extinct volcanoes is a great experience but it's not always easy to see the wood for the trees, and sometimes the natural surrounds means you can't really get a good idea of their shape. That's why we recommend seeing some of the local volcanoes from the air by flying over them in a hot air balloon. In Santa Pau you'll find Vol de Coloms, a company that can take you on your airborne adventure. It has to be said that observing volcanoes such as Santa Margarita from above is an incredible sensation. The journeys last between 60 and 90 minutes; afterwards you'll enjoy a great breakfast and receive a certificate as a souvenir.
Once your feet are back on terra firma, it's time to change county and head to Ripollès and, specifically, the town of Camprodon. This is the birthplace of one of the most prestigious Spanish musicians of all time, Isaac Albéniz, and you can visit a museum dedicated to his life and work. Situated closed to the house where he was born, and in front of a famous bridge across the river Ter, it features personal objects, scores, photographs, pianos that he used to compose some of his works, and even the bed that he took whenever he had to traval by boat to ensure that he would sleep well. Music lovers shouldn't miss a visit to this fascinating place.
This morning you went for a trip in a pretty unusual mode of transport, a hot air balloon, and this afternoon, you're going to try another less-than-common way of getting about, a zip train. The journey takes you from the town of Ribes de Freser to the Vall de Núria (which cannot be reached by car) and travels through a mountainous landscape (and a rise of more than 1,000 metres) full of photogenic views. Once at the Valley of Núria, take some time to see the sanctuary, lake and amazing natural setting, and perhaps try one of the different walking tours that start there.
Once you've enjoyed everything that Núria has to offer and headed back down with the zip train, it's almost time for dinner. However, first you should head to the Scriptorium in Ripoll, which explains the cultural history of this town that's the capital of the Ripollès county, and the relevance of its monastery not just for the local area but for the whole of Catalonia. You will also find out how the monks used to write with goose feathers, using these instruments to create beautiful documents. It's a great way to finish a day full of adventure and discovery.
The next day you should head to the outskirts of the Parc Natural del Cadí-Moixeró and the town of La Pobla de Lillet. Close by, you'll find the Jardins Artigas, gardens designed by a certain Antoni Gaudí. It often seems as though there were no limits to the imagination of the Catalan architect, and this charming space that dates from 1906 once more shows the truth in this maxim. Stones, water and vegetation are elegantly combined to create various atmospheres and elements, from bridges to sculptures and artificial caves.
A few kilometres below Berga, on the road that runs from Cal Rosal to Olvan, you'll find Fuives, an international centre dedicated to the Catalan donkey; this reserve aims to protect and preserve this local species and also provide information about it. You can enjoy guided tours that let you see the animals ('guarans' or 'rucs') and, through audiovisual presentations and an ecomuseum, get to know the history of this race that not so long ago was at risk of extinction.
The final afternoon of your time in the Pirineus Orientals will be spent in the county of La Cerdanya, which is crossed by the river Segre from east to west. After your busy two days, when not stop off at Puigcerdà and head to the Schierbeck park for a relaxing walk around the lake? If you're travelling with children, they'll love to see the ducks and swans, play among the trees or even head out with you on a boat across the lake.
To round off your visit, take a trip to Llívia, a small town that you reach by crossing the French border; however, as it actually belongs to Catalonia, you'll find yourself crossing the border once more to get to it (this is a consequence of the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, which stated that villages in the area would pass to France but Llívia was a town and as such remained part of Spain). Take a walk through its lovely streets and visit the church; you'll also find a few places where you can eat. However, the town's most famous feature is, without doubt, the farmàcia Esteve, considered Europe's oldest standing chemists; it's thought to date from the 15th century. It's been converted into a municipal museum and includes a valuable collection of boxes, pots, lab instruments and glass containers, as well as a library.
Where to eat?
At Fonda Xesc they work with seasonal ingredients to create Catalan dishes. The chef, Francesc, started learning his trade with his mother at this 'fonda' (a traditional Catalan inn and restaurant), and some of the dishes they cooked together back then are still on the menu, 25 years later, such as the delicious rabbit with langoustines. Such 'mar i muntanya' (surf and turf) creations are a house speciality - they also make pig's trotters with 'sobrassada' (spicy spreading sausage from Mallorca) and sea cucumbers, and peas and wild asparagus with fish of the day and the juices of roasted meat. When it comes to cooking, they have three basic tenets: minimal cooking, cooking to order, and simplicity. It's a formula that has been deserving of a Michelin star since 2009 and that's also applied to creations such as rice with spinach and truffle, artichokes with bacon, coriander and garlic, and, for dessert, dark chocolate with liquorice and eucalyptus (typical to the area).
Les Cols is the traditional country house ('masia') in Olot where the chef Fina Puigdevall was born and where, since 1990, she's created her own particular and renowned gastronomy. The setting is nothing less than a declaration of intent, because capturing the landscape and essence of the Garrotxa area is the starting point for Puigdevall's experimental cuisine. The dishes she creates constantly evolve and change, depending on the season and her imagination, but they also use certain local ingredients that never disappear from the menu. In fact, sometimes they're so local they come from the restaurant's own kitchen garden, based on the county's traditional vegetable gardens. Food items inextricably connected to this area include buckwheat, turnip, Santa Pau white beans and truffles, which are all omnipresent.
Four generations have passed through the kitchen of Ca l'Enric since 1882, and in 2002, the prestigious Michelin Guide recognised the work done by the restaurant to update its cooking style. The people responsible for this change are the young Juncà siblings: the three are propronents of what's known as 'ingredient cuisine' ('cuina de producte'). They focus on the local lands and surroundings of the restaurant, which is located in the heart of the Garrotxa region of Catalonia, although they say their cooking is inspired more by forests than by the extinct volcanoes that populate the area. One of their set menus, 'Discover the Valley', works with just such local ingredients: wild mushrooms, truffle, game, eel, river trout, etc. Another winner is the 'Sotabosc', which brings together ingredients grown around the restaurant (veal, wild mushrooms, aromatic herbs, flowers, leaves, etc). Another of their unique set menus is the woodcock one, which includes soup, a rice dish, and woodcock that's been stewed and cooked on the grill with 'salmís' a sauce made with the bird's innards, foie and cognac.
At Carme 13 Pastisseria they make bread like in the good old days; when cakes and pastries were made without margarine, and bread was produced using a mother yeast and slow fermentation. They also use traditional recipes and local quality products. That's the essence of Carme 13, and might explain why, even though it didn't open so long ago, it's become a bit of a local hot spot as well as a must-visit for lovers of typical Catalan 'coca' cake, whether it's 'papa de coca', 'coca de forner' (baker's coca) or the addictive and delicious 'coca de sucre' (sugar coca). And if you're a fan of different kinds of flour, Carme 13 serves a variety of breads made from the likes of buckwheat, spelt and farro flour, with a different one each day of the week.
This is a place to try modern, regional cooking using dairy products that they make themselves. Try the selection of cheeses with tomato and vanilla jam, or the cod with light potato cream and Galician-style scallop.
Menu: €40. Closed Tue and Wed.
Pla del Ro, s/n (Gorguja, Llívia). T. 972 14 62 79. www.laformatgeria.com
Where to stay?
Are you looking for a place to take the family that's surrounded by mountains? Do you need to completely disconnect from everybody and everything? In the heart of the Camprodon valley you'll find Mas El Mariner, a stately home that dates from the 18th century, and that was converted first into a farmhouse and later a country house. It has four bedrooms, a barbecue, garden and private swimming pool.
In one of the most beautiful villages in the Camprodon valley, this hotel offers a welcoming family atmosphere and some 15 rooms as well as a restaurant serving home-made food.
Half-board from €52 per person.
Camí d’Ulldeter, 1 (Setcases) T. 972 13 60 52. www.cantiranda.com
If you're looking to really get away from it all, the Girona part of the Pyrenees is an ideal spot to try. In the foothills of the range, for instance, is Mas de l'Om, located in the Bianya valley. It's a renovated 'masia' (country house) surrounded by fields, woods and a river; and is situated 850m above sea level. It has five bedrooms, a fireplace, heating, private swimming pool, an exterior veranda with a barbecue, and a horse stable. The area is completely idyllic and photogenic. Indeed make sure your mobile is well charged because it's impossible to go to Mas de l'Om and not take photos every two minutes.
This hotel is modern and elegant, with 21 bedrooms, garden and heated outdoor pool, and located close to the interesting historical part of the town. The restaurant serves simple dishes in the evenings.
From €110 for a double room with breakfast.
C/ Cereja, 4 (Llívia). T. 972 14 62 06. www.hotelbernatdeso.com
Country house on the outskirts of Bagà, with six original bedrooms, an organic vegetable garden and livestock.
From €70 per person for half board.
Barri Terradellas, 10 (Bagà). T. 93 824 40 76. www.molidelcaso.es