Barcelona is a tremendous city, but it is not Catalonia. Is that a bold claim for an outsider to make? Perhaps. Yet, the region has so, so much to offer outside of its biggest city. On my 6 day drive around the Cata-lands I spotted Roman relics along the coast of Tarragona, sipped effervescent Cava in the Penedès valley, traversed the magical coast of Salvador Dalí, drove through misty volcanoes in La Garrotxa and wandered around medieval Girona. I hope that these snippets and stories from my journey can provide some inspiration for your own adventure.
I clipped along Eixample and listened to the steady roar of traffic mingling with a crisp, early November breeze. On the corner of Carrer de Valéncia and Rambla de Catalunya, I spotted the acid orange box I had been searching for. This young Asian family of three was ahead of me in the queue.
“Próximo cliente, próximo cliente!” demanded the attractive brunette sales attendant. She wore a SIXT uniform with a trim navy blazer over a vest that was the same electric colour as the shop. After an interminable wait, it was my turn.
“Full insurance. Yes, you should get. Full coverage,” she pleaded.
Sensing the scam, I tried to argue my case: “I don’t think that will be so necessary, I’m a careful driver.”
“No, no. It’s good. Take it. Full coverage, only 10 euros per day.”
50 euros extra to have her leave me alone felt like a decent compromise at that point so I paid for the car – with full coverage – and was shepherded boisterously down into the garage by a portly Catalonian. And that’s where I got the first glimpse of my little red beauty. She was a funny looking car, but spanking new and the first SMART car I’d ever driven. It was time to hit the open road.
The morning’s drive was atop a lovely stretch of tar. All told it was an hour and a half escapade past Sitges and along the Costa Daurada (Gold Coast) towards Tarragona. I’d read about my first destination a few years back during a course called Ancient Rome on its Periphery back in university. During the latter stages of the Empire, Tarragona (then known as Tarraco) was the capital city of Hispania Tarraconensis, the largest province on the Iberian peninsula. I was considerably excited to explore the ruins.
After scarfing down a quick cheeseburger and a cold can of Fanta at a Chinese-run Hamburguesia, I made my way over to the AD Hostel. A pony-tailed receptionist informed me that although it was 3 hours until check-in time there were 13 UNESCO listed Roman remains in Tarragona to keep me busy. “The amphitheatre was once used for Gladiators!” he exclaimed.
A 10-minute drive took me to El Parc Ecohistóric del Pont del Diable. I pulled off of the highway, parked my red rocket in the back of a rectangular lot and whaled up a timid hill to the entrance. It was marked by a narrow dirt path lined on either side by decaying stone edifices and skinny pine trees. A couple of kids marauded down the path on my left laughing en route towards their cheering friends. And then I finally glimpsed it.
A miraculously intact stone aqueduct protruded from the ground with its unmistakable and eerily perfect series of arches. The stout sign next to the path detailed that the Devil’s Bridge was more formally known as Les Ferreres Aqueduct and that it was constructed during the reign of Emperor Augustus, just around the year 0. Yes, year 0.
I climbed to the top of the structure, breathing in deeply and admiring the aromatic pine forest. Flora spread out in every direction from the straw-coloured earth. Wisping clouds danced along a light blue sky, seemingly frozen in time, and I stared off into the distance wondering how many millions of memories were etched upon this stone.
When I left the ancient creation to explore the deeper forest I ran into the hyperkinetic school kids once more.
“Hey, buddy! What desk you work on?” asked one of them, a small Catalonian boy with nut-brown hair and a mischievous smile. Before I could answer he asked again, “How much money you make? You have a girlfriend? You guys practice….”
The rest of his gang laughed while I fumbled for my answer. They all played soccer together and were there on a school field trip. We exchanged Instagrams and I promised to tag them in a video that I was making about the afternoon. Smiling wryly, I left my new friends behind inhaling the sumptuous botanicals and reflecting upon our relentless march of human progress.
The next morning slapped me in the face with a 40 euro parking ticket. You have to be careful about parking in Tarragona apparently. I grimaced, plucked the pink slip out from the windshield and ran inside to collect my things.
A private tour was scheduled at Mont Marcal, a Cava vineyard in Penedès, and I was meant to be there in two hours. With my belongings rapidly shuttled together, I hurdled downstairs to the reception, handed in my hostel key and made my way back out to the car. Only to be confronted – and I kid you not – with yet another 40 euro parking ticket. You have to be VERY, VERY careful about parking in Tarragona.
Penedès // Cava Country
The drive to Penedès was 45 minutes up the coast and slightly west towards the interior of the region. I checked in at a 2-star hotel of very little repute in Vilafranca del Penedès and threw my stuff into a tiny room with wine coloured carpeting and the lingering smell of old cigarettes. The plan was to drink quite heavily that afternoon so a cab had been booked down at reception to take me over to the vineyard.
An enormous black Volkswagen van pulled up to the hotel driven by an equally enormous Catalonian man. He looked to be about 50 years old with a fringe of grey-black hair around his balding head and wore a tattered old blue sweater with two clay coloured stripes around each arm. We somehow managed to converse on the way over to the vineyard despite my lack of Catalan and his lack of English. He was from Penedès and loved the Cava. He LOVED the Cava. I was excited.
I watched outside as Penedès sped by the large rectangular windows of the van. It was rolling hills, fortress topped mountains, wildflowers and smells of the soil. In this gentle valley, Cava was first invented. Back in 1872 to be exact. All thanks to a roguish and inventive Catalan named Josep Raventós. Raventós travelled around Europe during his young adulthood, sipping the nectar of the gods wherever he went. A visit to the nearby Champagne region of France provided the spark and thus Cava was born.
I learned all of this fodder from the vivacious Stefania Della Vedova, head of exports at Mont Marcal. In addition to my crash course on Cava production, she toured me around the property which included a foray into the spiderweb laced cellars and a memorable lunch of Catalan specialities. After lunch, we went to see the vine pickers in action. Early November is smack in the middle of pruning season.
There were three of them working fastidiously to trim the never-ending vines. Two were immigrants from Mali and the third was a local man with a strong Catalan face. They all got on at a vigorous pace while I stopped to snap my pictures. Occasionally laughing about something with Stefania but otherwise never pausing the clippers for even the faintest of seconds. Tough job.
Cava is perhaps less famous than its French counterpart, Champagne, but it is no less delicious. It’s bubbly goodness. Light and crisp and dynamic. We tried a ton of Cavas, Stefania and I. You have normal Cavas, you have special Cavas, high sugar, low sugar, woody Cavas, caramel Cavas, flowers on the nose and everything in between.
My head was spinning as I left the old farmhouse and after saying goodbye to Stefania and her dog Charlie, I bought an enormous baguette at the nearest supermarket, a circular package of mixed Catalonian deli meats, a chunk of young Manchego and made a haphazard sandwich before flopping down onto the coarse duvet covering my springy little hotel bed. Bona nit.
El Costa Brava through the Eyes of Dalí
The next day, with more than a slight hangover, I checked out of the hotel – thankfully with no parking ticket this time – and drove towards the Costa Brava. My end destination was 2.5 hours away in a peninsula up near the coast of France. On the map it jutted out into the Balearic like a torturous green puzzle piece. Here I could spot Roses, Cadaques and Port Lligat. This triumvirate of seaside towns, I knew, comprised the mystical kingdom of Salvador Dalí.
I pulled off of the C-31 motorway for the first of several planned detours along the coast. A long and winding drive through tunnels of trees was interrupted every so often by a glimpse of sparkling turquoise water. But it was already creeping towards 4 o’clock and I hadn’t seen much of anything worthwhile yet. Eventually, the road circled around a promontory at the foot of a lighthouse. Far de Sant Sebastià – the Lighthouse of Saint Sebastian – and a view to taking the breath away. I bounded out of the car, ecstatic to witness this first dramatic panorama.
Thankfully there was a small hotel next to the lighthouse and I used this chance to filch some wifi. Previously I had been navigating the roads blind, but was desperate to make it towards Cala d’Aigua Xelida, an orgasmic little cove in the fishing village of Tamariu and knew I would need some help for this leg of the drive.
After loading up the directions and slinking up and down steep hills for 45 minutes I finally made it to the hidden gem. I scaled the rocky outcrops along a man-made wall and admired several large holiday houses with unparalleled access to this seemingly private beach. In the summer one could imagine overcrowding, but I found Xelida nearly naked. A string of gargantuan terra cotta rocks dissolved into smaller pieces as I bounded about, shaking away civilization from their backs like a wet Labrador. Across the cove, an army of bone-white cottages was interrupted by wickedly bent pine trees. I could imagine this as a place Dali might have found a spark for his otherworldly flame.
Now it was time to head towards Cadaques. I had planned this final assault to coincide with the sunset in hopes of replicating some sort of hedonistic surrealist dreamscape. Yet upon arrival to Roses, at the rear portion of my peninsular target, I sensed the coming rain. Barreling across ghastly terrain I realized the storm was now inevitable and sunset hopes were dashed. The wind howled against a dark grey sky. I spent less than 10 minutes apiece at Cadaques and Port Lligat – after driving nearly a full day hellbent on seeing see them – and instead made a bold final charge towards my second lighthouse of the day, Far de Cap de Creus.
The drive up to the lighthouse was a harrowing experience. It began to hail and upon reaching the summit there was nothing to see but endless storm clouds. I had a simple dinner of grilled squid and washed it down with cheap red wine before hanging my head and rolling back down the hill, ultimately disappointed. There was a strange-looking military vehicle parked at the bottom of the hill with the letters MAN on the grill, coloured in red, white and blue.
As I began to take pictures of this contraption an older couple disembarked. I learned they were an older Dutch couple and had owned the retrofitted behemoth for near on 30 years. Every summer was the chance to take her across the world once more. Their current adventure was from the Netherlands, down to Morrocco, up around Spain and finally back home. A 4-month journey powered in its entirety by vegetable oil at what seemed to me to be an excruciatingly slow rate of 50 km/h. They were happy to revel in this storm at the end of the world and now I was as well.
After a largely forgettable night in Dalí’s hometown of Figueres, I woke up and spent an hour at his bizarre-looking museum. It was coated in surrealist magic and is well worth a visit. But soon it was time to leave Figueres behind and take the circuitous winding route through the volcanic highlands.
Soon after departure, I passed by this austere reminder of how powerfully the Catalan referendum movement still burned in this part of the region. Just over one year earlier the Catalonian Independence Referendum had been declared illegal by the Spanish government. Hopes of secession were dashed and the chief politicians and organizers of the movement were arrested. Many remain political prisoners to this day. Though demands in cosmopolitan Barcelona liberty are still heard, these are merely a whimper in comparison to the fierce eruptions of protest in the villages and towns amongst La Garrotxa.
My day was coloured by poignant reminders of this festering sore. Through the steamy terrain, I drove as the rain began pelting down. Finally, a break in the onslaught and I stopped to watch a herd of Donkeys collected behind a wooden fence on the side of the road. Cars whooshed past in either direction, splattering rain on my back as I stood mesmerized by these creatures – they themselves a symbol of Catalonia.
A bit further along and I came across the incredulous. In the distance all there was to see was mist and cataclysmic grey rock crawling with sopping green. But there amongst the monotony hung as large of a flag as I’d ever witnessed. It was buffeted along the left by a village built atop an enormous wall.
Castellfollit de la Roca. It seemed to be a mirage, something so strange that it verged on the farcical. People are born atop this wall, spend their wholes and die here. There was a path in the valley below the steep cliff, with wooden bridges over babbling brooks and luscious meadows drenched by the new rain. I began to laugh as the storm picked up its place, utterly free in this moment of divergence from reality.
La Garottxa volcanic region is covered in walking trails around an amazing series of around 40 inactive volcanoes. This fertile swath land is dotted with ancient wonder towns such as Besalú, Olot and Santa Pau which are all famous for their food and atmosphere. You could probably take a whole week exploring the volcanic region alone if you wanted to. Unfortunately, I only had a few hours before it was time to head to Girona, and those hours were spent beneath the mist and driving rain so walking these trails was out of the question.
Of everything in the entire trip it was these volcanoes, I’d looked forward to the most.
Amongst the soggy grounds and the grey, wasted skies, I found an opportunity. A right-hand turn took me on a counterintuitive route towards Santa Pau. It was in this small medieval town that the desire for independence came into its starkest contrast.
Through the twisted Catalan streets, past the grime and the slime etched across old walls. Big, fat, sordid dew drops slammed against the hood of my bright red car. I saw horses through the splatter. Standing there, persevering. Looking out towards nothing in particular. At least nothing that I could see. It was hours before I found my way back towards the road. Dry from the safety and close cloistered comfort of the car. I didn’t see any of the volcanoes, But I saw something else instead.
I arrived in Girona, finally, after my long circuitous route through the drenched volcanic region. It felt like I had been driving for the past week straight – and well, I kind of had. In the centre of the city, they have all of these small confusing pedestrian streets where you need to drive at a snail’s pace and then you end up on a one-way road going the wrong direction, so on and so forth. Girona is a beautiful city but driving there is a real nightmare. Well, there’s my excuses out of the way.
Airbags: BOOM! Rear Windows: CRASH! I came out of the car shell shocked, dazed and utterly confused. People were gasping and running over towards me with rapid-fire Catalan and Spanish inquisitions on their lips. I looked at the wrecked car, horrified. What on Earth had I just done? A girl around my age named Julia came to the rescue. “Are you ok? What happened?”
“I don’t know. What happened?” I answered, like an idiot. She told me it was going to be ok and that she would help. And she did help. More than you could ever imagine. We stood there for three hours while the situation sorted itself out. I had crashed into a small, fat bollard on the side of a narrow road I don’t think I was supposed to be driving down. I was probably going all of 15 km/h but the SMART car’s diminutive size means that it comes equipped with very protective safety features. Even a small impact sets off the airbags and punches the windows away from the driver. Which, theoretically, I was very thankful for.
And then the rain came worse than it had during the entire trip. My car had crashed in just about the most terrible place possible for city traffic, and it stood there in the narrow valve of a street corridor, clogging up Girona like an overstrained toilet. Julia stayed by my side for the entire three-hour debacle, communicating with the police on my behalf and waiting with me, until at long last transportation arrived at the Girona airport so that I could pick up my replacement vehicle.
Thank god for that comprehensive insurance option. Didn’t have to pay a cent.