Barcelona is one of the world’s most visited cities, but relatively few tourists venture beyond the suburbs. Yet, just a couple of hours’ drive from the metropolis, there’s a relaxed region that’s ready to be explored at your own pace: the province of Girona, a jewel in the Spanish crown.
The best way to experience this diverse area is to ditch the car and set off slowly along the quiet lanes and footpaths on foot. A walking route leads from Olot in the foothills of the Pyrenees all the way to the Costa Brava – here are some of the highlights along the way, whether you’re on two feet or four wheels.
See dramatic landscapes in a volcano nature reserve
Start your visit by exploring the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica, a nature reserve that hides some extraordinary geological treasures, including forty extinct volcanoes. The Alta Garrotxa, the highest area closest to the Pyrenees, has the most dramatic scenery, with towers of limestone and basalt cliffs, while further south the hills give way to rolling countryside. The GR2 national trail from Olot to Besalú passes through green valleys that offer gentler hiking.
Continue into the Fageda d’en Jordà nature reserve, a cool beech forest that grows on an ancient lava flow. Then follow a rust-coloured dirt track to the remarkable remains of the Volcà del Croscat, which was used as a quarry until 1982. The volcano’s cone was cut into by diggers, which sliced away a section like a piece of cake. The one benefit of that destructive work is that now you can see a cross-section of the shaft through which lava once flowed.
From there, it’s a bit of a climb to the Volcà de Santa Margarida but worth the detour. At the top, in the middle of a wide, grassy basin, sits the lonely chapel of Santa Margarida. Standing in this quiet spot, surrounded by the encroaching forest, it’s hard to believe this was once a fiery crater.
Visit medieval towns
You can’t go far in central Girona province without coming across an attractive medieval town where the pace of life seems not to have changed since the thirteenth century.
Olot, the county capital, is the starting point for the Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica and is surrounded by volcanic peaks. A few kilometres along the GR2 trail to the southeast – still within the volcanic zone – lies Santa Pau, a pretty town dominated by a grand castle, El Castell de la Baronia, around which is a network of alleyways, relaxed squares and Romanesque churches.
Further on along the GR2, you’ll arrive in Besalú, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Catalunya. A network of narrow, cobbled streets and tall buildings huddle beside the River Fluvia and an impressive eleventh-century fortified bridge, the Pont Vell. There’s such a peaceful ambience here that you can’t imagine the town ever needed defending.
Image by Ros Walford
You can see the ruins of synagogue and the mikveh (bathhouse) where the Sephardic Jewish residents in the early Middle Ages would meet to bathe beside the riverside. Stop to have a drink at a café in the tranquil main square and don’t miss the quirky Micromundi: Museum of Miniatures and Microminiatures in front of the monastery of Sant Pere.
Get a taste of the countryside with farms and food
After Besalú, the landscape levels out and you follow the River Fluvia, a broad green river flanked by cool forests. It’s an idyllic agricultural landscape, where stone farmhouses stand beside wildflower meadows, red with poppies in spring.
It’s possible to stay at some of these ancient farms along the way to the coast, such as Can Muni near Pins, which runs horse-riding holidays. The rambling farmhouse with large stables is in a gorgeous spot overlooking a valley. Sitting outside on the terrace with a glass of local Empordà wine, as the sun throws warm shades over the meadow of long grasses, you feel the aches of the day’s walk ease away.
Catalunya boasts some of the world’s best Michelin-star restaurants but there are plenty of more humble regional foods to enjoy along this route. In La Garrotxa, you can eat “volcanic cuisine” which uses fresh, local ingredients from this fertile region.
Try patates d'Olot (stuffed potatoes), slow-cooked fesol beans in Santa Pau, black truffles and many types of cured sausage, including fuet, butifarra and llonganissa. The Costa Brava also has fine produce, with L’Escala being the famed for its anchovies.
Artisan cheese-making is flourishing throughout Girona province. Mas Marcè is a small-scale farm run by a family of shepherds that produces exceptionally good sheep’s cheese. It’s worth a detour from the hiking route to visit them on a guided tour, especially if you’re a fan of cheese that packs a punch. Here, you can milk a sheep, feed an orphaned lamb, take a wool-carding workshop and finally enjoy a tasting of several sublime cheeses – from rich, creamy formatge to El Set, a strong parmesan-style hard cheese.
Explore ancient ruins at Empúries
The verdant landscape gradually becomes drier as you head towards the coast along the GR1 national trail. When you reach the last ridge, the view over the Costa Brava is spectacular. Before you lies a long stretch of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and the impressive Castell del Montgrí, a fourteenth century fortress high up on a rocky outcrop, presiding over the Golf de Roses.
Descend down to sea level to reach the end of the GR1 at Sant Martí d'Empúries. Nearby, there’s one of the most unexpected places on the Costa Brava. Empúries – the ruins of the only Greek and Roman settlement on the Iberian peninsula. This mini-Pompeii, which began as a small trading colony in the fifth century BC, is one of Spain’s most important archeological sites. It’s an astonishing location: the ruins lie on arid land and a striking row of pines separates them from the turquoise sea beyond.
Image by Ros Walford
Hike the the Costa Brava
This part of the Costa Brava is a world away from the busy tourist resorts to the south, and you don’t have to stop hiking just because you’ve reached the coast, as there’s a great stretch of the GR92 national trail to be explored, which runs the length of Spain’s Mediterranean coast.
From the sailing town of l’Estartit, take the GR92 towards l’Escala. The exposed path can be tough in summer in hot sun, but hike during cooler months and you can enjoy stunning views over the sea towards the Medes Islands, a cluster of seven islets that offer some of the best scuba-diving in Spain. You don’t have to walk too far before you come across secluded coves with clear, turquoise water that you may have (almost) to yourself.
Travelling along the coast towards France, you’ll reach Emporda wine country, Salvador Dalí House in Cadaqués and beyond to the wild coastline of Cap de Creus Natural Park.
Image by Ros Walford
Head back to Barcelona for a party
Although it’s tempting to stay put in rural bliss, Barcelona may finally start calling. After the slow pace of Catalunya’s back roads, the Ramblas will come as a shock, but you can’t beat it for a post-hike celebration.
Here, you can roam the narrow streets of the Barri Gòtic, dine out on excellent tapas, explore the best bars and hang out on Barceloneta beach at night where there’s almost always a festival vibe. Find a spot between the poi fire dancers and the party people, and marvel at just how diverse this region is.
Ros was hosted by Explore, who offer eight-day self-guided walking trips through Catalunya from £530 per person (includes seven nights' bed and breakfast and luggage transfers). See the Catalan Tourist Board’s website for more information about Catalunya, and explore more of Spain with the Rough Guide to Spain. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Top image © Claudio Giovanni Colombo/Shutterstock