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Catalonia’s enticing charms

catalonia-2With its hilltops of wild flowers and its sumptuous cuisine, Anna Maria Espsäter falls for the quirky, rustic charms of Spain’s northeast region

Waking up in a comfy bed in the Catalan Pyrenees, I find myself suffering from a bit of ‘Alpine confusion’. Fresh mountain air, rustic wooden beams in my chalet-style hotel, and – wait a moment – is that a horse wearing a cowbell? Looks like I’ve ended up somewhere just a little bit different.

With just 140 souls to its name, the small village of Estamariu sits solidly on a piece of rock overlooking the Segre river valley. The journey here follows a steep, narrow and exceedingly winding road, and is an adventure in itself.

“This road used to be the smuggle route from Andorra before the new government clamped down on it,” my driver, Xavier, tells me. “People would drive at night with no headlights on, to avoid getting caught.” I would have thought the feat of driving here in broad daylight was hard enough.

The villages in the county of Alt Urgell, one of Catalonia’s northernmost, are hardly a hotbed of contraband activities anymore. But these havens of rustic charm are made from sturdy stuff, some dating back to medieval times. The people – having withstood the Franco era and kept their culture alive – are proud Catalan speakers, so I get a crash course on the local lingo from Xavier and can’t help but snigger when I learn that foc means ‘fire’.catalonia-1

Views good enough to eat

In glorious sunshine at the height of the poppy season, 13 of us intrepid walkers set out to explore the area on our first day’s hike. Descending on nearby Bescaran, we follow a winding dirt track leading out of the village. It’s uphill for a while, getting those leg muscles working and the adrenaline rushing, before the track evens out and settles into more gentle undulations.


The landscape is determinedly pretty – every shade of green, with multi-coloured butterflies and bright splashes of red, blue and yellow wild flowers lining the path. In the background, the snow-capped mountains of Cadí-Moixeró national park are looming large, while the Segre river is running wild in the valley below.

The destination, after a 4km/2.5-mile hike up to 1,300m, is a Neolithic “dolmen”: three blocks of rock – two walls and a roof – known as La Cabana del Moro, the Moor’s Cabin, dating back 5,000 years. No one quite knows whether a Moor actually lived here once, or indeed, how he managed to fit in, since the cabin is only 2.5 x 1.5 metres. Perhaps the idyllic setting made up for the lack of space.

Although a hiking trip, time in Alt Urgell is firmly focused on pleasing the belly and a veritable feast is spread before us at every turn. Our hotel in Estamariu, Cal Teixidó, is renowned for its scrumptious dinners using local produce, and even tiny, crumbling villages such as Bescaran have excellent fare – from local wild mushrooms and roast chicken to the obligatory pan Catalan (bread with olive oil, fresh tomato and garlic) and eminently drinkable local wines.

So as not to feel too stuffed from our multi-course dinners we simply walk a little harder on our second day and visit an old woollen mill. In operation since 1902, it is home to Spain’s oldest continuously working spinning Jenny, dating from 1850. Although still making blankets, socks and scarves, these days the mill is also open to the public as a museum.

Crumbling rustic culture

We trek uphill to the town of Calvinyà through lush, gorgeous-smelling pine forests, with wild mountain thyme that lines the footpath adding to the heady mix of aromas. It has its own ‘peasant museum’ set up by the Troguet-Pal family – one of several families doing their utmost to revive these dilapidated villages. “The old ones die and the young ones move away to work in Andorra or Barcelona,” one local laments. Tourism can make a difference and help reverse this cycle and people here are excited to see more visitors finding their way up to these remoter parts.

The hike proves hungry work, so we tuck into our picnics on the outskirts of the village to the happy croaks of nearby mating frogs. All the way back down to La Seu black storm clouds chase us, but we make it back to our cosy hotel in the nick of time. When the torrential rain dies down, a dazzling double rainbow lights up the sky and I swear I can hear the tinkling of a horse’s cowbell somewhere beyond the distant mountains.

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