PHOTO BY Albert Torelló/Flickr
Medieval villages, back roads, and the Wild Pyrenees
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Leave behind the beaches of Barcelona and drive northwest, toward the French border, and you’ll soon find yourself passing through historic villages that get smaller as mountains loom larger. This is adventure territory, home to Spain’s wild Pyrenees Mountains and Aigüestortes and Estany de Sant Maurici, the only national park in Catalonia. Less than four hours from Barcelona, the region is a weekend road-tripper’s dream, one that invites snow sports in winter and hiking the rest of the year. Spain requires that visiting drivers carry an international driving permit, so be sure to grab yours before you leave. Here’s the best three-day itinerary to experience this off-the-beaten-path destination.
Day 1: Historic Salt Mines, Golden Witches, and Michelin-Starred Cuisine
First stop on this five-town day? Gerri de la Sal, a medieval monastic city located on the banks of the Noguera Pallaresa river. Head for the Salt Museum, where you’ll learn about Gerri de la Sal’s intertwined history of salt, wealth, and death: A lack of iodine proved fatal to this once prosperous city’s salt-mining industry.
After your salty morning, drive on until you reach Sort, which means “luck” in Catalan—an apt name for a city famous for its lottery shop, Bruixa d’Or, or the “Golden Witch.” If you want to play the lottery in Spain, this is the place to buy your ticket. Thanks to a slew of local players who won huge prizes, people now travel from across Spain and even neighboring France to try their luck, particularly during Christmas lotteries such as El Gordo and El Niño. El Gordo is the second-longest running lottery in the world and, with a total prize payout of over €2.5 billion, the biggest worldwide. Tickets are €200 each, so most locals—even those who don’t gamble the rest of the year—tend to buy a few décimos, or tenths, of a ticket. The good news for international travelers: You don’t have to be a Spanish citizen to win as long as you’re over 18.
From Bruixa d’Or, head next door to Nyam!, an elegant gastrobar, for cocktails and tapas. (Wondering how much to tip? We have you covered.) The bar is outfitted with golden brooms and sculptures of the famous witch, a cartoon-like woman with a nose like one of Gumby’s legs, a pointy hat, and a gold jacket with bell sleeves. Nyam also sells golden witch souvenirs (such as a gold cape) as well as local arts, crafts, and edibles.
If the tapas haven’t filled you up, have lunch in Sort’s Michelin-starred restaurant, El Fogony, or head up the mountain to Restaurante El Pigal Casa Kiko in the town of Llesui for hearty traditional fare paired with sweeping views. Admire the pastures full of cows and horses, both bred for food in this region. (Avoid dishes marked poltre if you’re not interested in trying horse.) After lunch, take a tour of the village’s Romanesque church before you head back down the mountain.
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Twenty minutes later, you’ll hit the town of Escaló, where you can see a rare and well-preserved example of a vila closa, a fortified medieval community where the outer walls of the houses and buildings form a protective wall around the streets with gates at either end.
Continue to Espot, one of the gateway towns that surround Aigüestortes national park, and settle into an apartment at Les Picardes, which has views of the city’s elegant Romanesque bridge. For dinner, sample local specialties like trout in almond sauce and cannelloni stuffed with wild mushrooms at Juquim.
DAY 2: Cursed Peaks and Romanesque Churches
If the weather permits, head out for a morning of mountain exploration with an Aigüestortes park ranger. Depending on the time of year, you can either snowshoe or hike—just make sure you get a good shot of Els Encantats, the park’s famous twin peaks. Legend has it they’re petrified hunters, cursed for hunting and ridiculing the faithful during the Saint Maurici holiday. If you’d rather not be on foot, you can tour the park in a 4x4 taxi. Either way, be sure to pack water and a sandwich—there’s nowhere inside the park to buy food or drinks.
After lunch, drive to the town of Esterri de Aneu. The Ecomuseu is a local highlight, and guides here will explain the area's history, including how one local family rose to wealth and power in this rural locale. Next, head to nearby Son, a mountain village, to see the paintings in the local church. To one side of the altar, there’s a particularly interesting mural of Lucretia, a wife and mother who, in most tellings of the Roman legend, kills herself to save her family’s honor after being “disgraced” by rape. In this painting, however, the rapist is stabbing himself.
Venture on toward Isil for a look at another Romanesque church. In this case, the exterior is more interesting than the interior. If you visit near St. John’s Eve (June 23), stay to catch Les Falles, a multi-day festival involving flowers, fire, and fireworks. To celebrate, villagers hollow out huge logs, fill them with straw, ignite them, and carry them down the mountainside after sunset.
Otherwise, it's time to turn around and start heading back to Barcelona. Drive until you get to Montardit de Baix, a small village less than two miles from Sort. Book a table at the tiny village’s main culinary attraction, El Celler dels Joglars. With its curving organic forms and colored lights, the restaurant’s decoration can be described as Gaudí meets magic forest. While the decor alone would lure in some customers, the real draw here is the kitchen. Locally sourced ingredients are prepared in dishes like beef cheek with wild mushrooms in chocolate sauce, and Llesiu potatoes served with walnut pesto, chimichurri, and a regional specialty, sweet allioli, a Spanish aioli made with quince. Just be sure to bring your appetite—the portions are generous.
After dinner, sleep off your feast at Hotel l’Alcova, conveniently located next door.
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DAY 3: Traditional Sweets and Europe’s Oldest Operating Chocolate Factory
About 90 minutes outside of Barcelona, stop in Agramunt, a small Catalan town famous for its historic chocolate factory and torrons. A Spanish sweet popular at Christmas, torrons are disc-shaped sweets typically made with hazelnuts, honey, and sugar. And the torrons in this region have their own Protected Designation of Origin status.
On the way into town, pull up at Torrons Vicens to fill up on free samples of every imaginable variation of torron. Traditional flavors like almond paste compete for attention with crunchier torron soufflés and modern flavors like mojito and cheesecake designed by brothers and chefs Ferran and Albert Adrià. Chocoholics shouldn’t miss their popular new dark chocolate topped with salt and bread.
There’s a new multimedia Chocolate Museum next door, but unless you speak Spanish or Catalan and prefer to learn about the history of Torrons Vicens in video format, you’re safe skipping it. Note that there are Torrons Vicens shops all around Catalonia, but the one in Agramunt has an area where you can watch people make the torrons; it's also bigger and more generous with free samples than the little shops in Barcelona’s busy city center can afford to be.
Before you get back on the road to Barcelona, dip deep-fried churros in thick Agramunt hot chocolate at Casa de Xocolata Jolonch, one of the oldest chocolate brands in the world. If you come through on a weekday before 3 p.m., watch workers make chocolate “a la pedra” using a traditional grinding stone and molds—they even chill the chocolate in a massive antique cooler.
7 Practical Tips to Pull Off Your Trip:
1. Rent a small car with some oomph—you want it to be compact enough that it's easy to navigate narrow streets and winding mountain roads, yet have a motor that can handle steep inclines.
2. If you travel from December through March, when it's more likely to snow, rent chains with your car.
3. Get in touch with the National Park rangers and guides at area museums like the Ecomuseu for the best tips and information about guided outings. Exploring on your own is fine and safe in most cases, but there are many places you won’t have access to without a local guide (they literally unlock doors, some with giant skeleton keys).
4. Learn a little Catalan before you go, even if your Spanish is good—the natives here speak Catalan, as well as a French mountain dialect called Occitan.
5. The region has lots to offer year-round, but avoid November. Most locals go on vacation then, so most restaurants and hotels are closed.
6. Make reservations at local restaurants, especially during ski season and the summer months. Many establishments are small and fill up fast.
7. For an authentic experience, book a casa rural, essentially a local’s home. The owners will give the best tips on how to make the most of your time in this less-visited part of Catalonia.
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