Cap de Creus Natural Park
Cap de Creus Natural Park

Walking holiday in Spain: From Catalonia's Pyrenees down to the Mediterranean

James Hanning encounters a sublimely pastoral scene with barely another tourist as he dallies with Dalí on a tranquil, rustic ramble

James Hanning
Tuesday 07 April 2015 12:44
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Well, it looks downhill on the map, and it sounds downhill: "From the Pyrenees to the Sea". I was vaguely expecting a stately, five-day descent from the cool mountains that nudge the French border, to the agreeable Catalan village where Salvador Dalí kept a house in Spain's north-eastern corner.

But what went down also went up. The going up was every bit as good as the going down, and it was pretty much all totally exhilarating. Having got a train to Dalí's birthplace, Figueres, we did indeed start off up in the mountains, a stone's throw from France. And we had taken our Orwells and Laurie Lees, so were filled with romance about sun-dappled uplands and how, nearly 80 years earlier, foppish Brits equipped only with tweed jackets and idealistic zeal had arrived in the dead of night to do their bit against fascism.

The first night was cool. Positively chilly, actually, and wet, even in late May, but it gave us something to look back on in smug accomplishment. The first day's walking, through thickly wooded and wonderfully unfarmed, precipitous hills, was a very roundabout route up to the village of Maçanets de Cabrenys (only 3km as the crow flies), a well-appointed bolthole for hot Catalans in the summer, but seemingly deserted otherwise.

This was something of a limb-loosener (well, stiffener, actually), and gave us an early opportunity to get lost at no great detriment. In fact, as we were to find, the routework by our tour operator, Inntravel, could not be faulted all week, but it would not be a proper holiday without an argument about the route.

My wife's infallible assertions about "grandes randonnées" and tracks carved by generations of travellers – as we stumbled into ever more impenetrable undergrowth and the stars twinkled ever brighter – became a bit of a chorus.

Anyway it all served to engender a feeling of virtue and good health, topped off by a swim and sauna back at the hotel, La Central, a curious former hydroelectric plant converted into a spa. That sense of "job done" was to grow during the week.

Castle of Requesens

On Day Two, a taxi arrived to take us down across the Llobregat valley to our second hotel, the spectacular Can Xiquet, on the edge of the village of Cantallops. This was to be another day of not so much walking from A to B with bags going on ahead, as walking from A to B then back to A, but it was none the worse for that.

The sun had come out and we were getting the hang of it. Moving rapidly past some of the most beautifully situated slaughterhouses in Europe, mercifully an only brief reminder that people have to earn a living somehow, we began a dizzying climb up to the castle of Requesens, overlooking Albera Natural Park, through a riot of lizards, woodchats, shrike, redstarts, hoopoe, dark blue bees and clouded yellow butterflies. The air was scented with lavender and fennel.

Our route was almost unhindered by other walkers, and as fatigue and fractiousness began to encroach on our bliss, we wondered if there really would be any lunch to be had in so deserted a spot. We need not have worried. We came across a particularly remote and absurdly beautiful farmhouse and diffidently wondered if they might have a glass of water. We were met by a scene straight from Volume I of the Ludicrous Holiday Fantasies of Soppy Brits who Romanticise the Locals (but which never really happen) textbook.

There was a room heaving with ruddy-faced Pyreneean types, beaming expansively and inviting "los ingleses" to join them in their hearty lunch of cold cuts of delicious but not necessarily NHS-approved local meats, complete with buckets-full of robust red wine. And yes, it really would have been rude not to. In fact, this was not someone's house, nor was it a Stella Artois ad, but the most rustic of restaurants. Our new friends were a club of middle-aged walkers from across the border in France, clearly in no need of lessons in enjoying oneself. The long walk down was made easier by dreamy thoughts of transnational fraternity.

That was a bit of a highlight, but there were to be more. The walk had taken its toll, so the following day we cheated and got a cab part of the way before jumping out to walk through some fairly intensive viticulture to our next base, a delightful B&B at the village of Garriguella. Not for the first time, even in a fairly popular part of the country and only 12km from the sea, we barely saw a car during our walk, a reminder of the hugeness of Spain. Our overnight base was a chance to see a more modest facet of the country. We bought ourselves a picnic of bread, local sausage, asparagus soup and fruit, consumed at our couldn't-be-more accommodating hostess's kitchen table. A little bogus it may have been – this was a business transaction – but we did feel we were doing the "getting to know you" thing with some outstandingly nice people.

And so, to the last two days of walking. The first of these, up and over the cliffs towards the sea, was spectacular, taking in the precipitously situated (originally ninth-century) Benedictine monastery of San Pere de Rodes. Down we trundled, following the steep and rocky descent to Port de la Selva, a former fishing village, now a resort, mostly modernised but not unpleasantly so, where we stayed at the Hotel Porto Cristo. The highlight of this sejour was a magnificent fish soup in the hotel restaurant (homards to Catalonia, anyone?), which our endeavours made us feel we had earned.

The final leg, up and over the peninsula, took us through the Cap de Creus Natural Park, another remarkably barely built-upon chunk of curiously treeless terrain, with spectacular views to the Mediterranean. Our final day's walk was a demanding 13km-worth over tricky-though-not-ruinous terrain and took most of the day. But after several days of wholesomeness and happy evening unwinding, we were able to take it in our stride.

So, when we reached Cadaqués, the El Dorado of our trip late on Day Five, we were bursting with fitness but also ready to relax. And relaxing is what Cadaqués, a preposterously pretty but now thriving holiday spot, is ideally suited to. (I imagined we might have stumbled on an undiscovered jewel, and idly looked in an estate agent's window, to be informed the town's property is among the most expensive in Spain.)

Our hotel, the Playa Sol, could not have been closer to the warm, docile sea; the sort of place Mr Ripley might have chosen to end someone's days. Here, a visit to one of the several excellent fish restaurants is obligatory, even if the intrusion of foreign tourism has reached the stage where one was advertising "gamba's", but this was the exception that proves the rule. The place has managed to retain its charm. A walk to Dalí's last home was another aspect which stays in the memory, as did the swim – yes, it was just about warm enough – in a brilliantly clear sea en route. Beware the urchins, though. They stay in the foot.

Travel essentials

James Hanning travelled with Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk) which offers the self-guided walking holiday, From the Pyrenees to the Sea, in Catalonia from £760pp, including six nights’ B&B, three dinners, three picnics, luggage transported between four hotels and inns, route maps and walking notes. Available until 30 June and from 1 September to 31 October.

He travelled to Spain with Voyages SNCF, which offers train travel from London St Pancras to Figueres from £175pp return (0844 848 5848; voyages-sncf.com). Trains require a change in Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare du Lyon.

spain.info

Camino de Santiago (Getty)

FOUR CLASSIC SPANISH WALKS

El Camino de Santiago, northern Spain

Possibly the world's best-known long-distance path, the Way of St James actually starts in France and runs east to Santiago de Compostela across 750km. However, hikers can choose as many stages as they like, collecting pilgrim's "passport stamps" along the way at the various staging posts en route from Roncesvalles or Somport at the French border to Santiago de Compostela (caminodesantiago.me).

Caminito del Rey, Andalucia

"The world's most dangerous path" reopened after a 14-year hiatus last month. The 110-year-old, 3km boardwalk clings to the side of the almost-sheer Desfiladero de los Gaitanes gorge. It was closed when a string of hikers fell to their deaths after risking broken boards and missing sections, plunging 100m down to the Guadalhorce River. The route has now been repaired, with significant safety enhancements, and is open to brave ramblers once again (caminitodelrey.info).

The GR7, Andalucia to Andorra

Spain's first long-distance footpath runs all the way from Tarifa in Andalucia up to Andorra, then continues north through France to Alsace, marked with red and white waymarks.

40 Days Train Greenway, Madrid

Spain has converted dozens of former railway tracks into bucolic hiking trails – Vias Verdes – many of them easy day trips. This 14km option is south-east of the capital, Madrid, between Carabaña and Estremera. The Negrin railway line was said to have been built in 40 days during the Spanish Civil War to supply the capital when it was under siege (viasverdes.com).

Sophie Lam

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