Barcelona, the regional capital of Catalonia, is a launch pad for exploring Spain’s storied north-east – a mix of beaches, medieval cities, bold architecture and, of course, amazing food. Broadsheet visited and has pulled together an itinerary of how to travel around (via Eurail), what to do, see, eat and drink, and where to rest your head.
An afternoon session of cheese, jamon and vermouth in Barcelona
While Barcelona’s La Boqueria Market gets most of the attention, the Sants Market has a less frenetic place and a local feel. Since 1913, mongers have been selling seafood freshly plucked from the ocean, provedores have peddled fruit and veggies, and stall holders have tracked down local goods.
After strolling round the stalls, seek out Llet Crua, a fabulous cheese shop just outside the market that sells artisanal queso (cheese) from small-scale producers in the Catalonia region.
We’re introduced to the shop by former journalist and co-founder of food-tour company Aborígens, Francesc "Cesc" Castro, who tells us the name means “raw milk” – and raw-milk cheese is the speciality of owners Xevi Miró and Maria Carroll. “We’re living through the best cheese moment for the Catalan region,” Castro says. “Many young people have left the cities and moved to farms – a neo-hippie movement – and recovered the old shepherd cheese styles.”
He takes us to a store across the road that’s well worth a visit, an exemplary deli hawking Spain’s best-known culinary achievement: cured meat. Cerdos Extremeños has its own farm and sells jamon iberico (ham from the black Iberian pig), jamon serrano (ham from the sierra or mountain range) and much more. Even if you come here after hours, you can get your ham fix. Just to the right of the door is a jamon vending machine. Genius.
Finish with a stop at the Bodega Sant Medir. It’s nothing fancy, and perhaps that’s what makes this vermut (vermouth) bar so excellent. While old men sit at tables chatting and drinking, other punters line the bar eating olives, chorizo and pan con tomate (bread rubbed with tomato and garlic) – and of course downing vermouth. It’s super cheap, too.
Two spectacular coastal walks and lots of beaches
The Camino de Ronda trail traverses about 200 kilometres of the Costa Brava, which stretches from Blanes, 60 kilometres northeast of Barcelona, to the French border. If you base yourself at Hostal de la Gavina S’Agaro (see “Stay”) you’ll be on the path, and even if you’re time-poor and can only spend an hour or so walking, you’ll get a glimpse of the immense beauty of this area. From here, the well-established track weaves along craggy coastal cliffs, past elegant stuccoed houses and broad, calm beaches such as San Pol and Sa Conca.
In the height of summer, Llafranc (125 kilometres north east of Barcelona) heaves with beach-goers – it’s quite simply one of the coast’s prettiest enclaves. The Euro jet-set anchor their boats off the sandy shore, and other nearby beaches, and spend the day frolicking. You can catch a glimpse of them and the whole dazzling scene by walking from Llafranc to neighbouring Calella de Palafrugell. There’s a path that links both beaches, passing restaurants, bars, shops and a wooded headland. The walk isn’t long at all, but the scenery is dramatic.
Northern Catalonia’s largest city, Girona, is striking with its Gothic churches, cobbled lanes and medieval walls. Game of Thrones fans will recognise it from season six, when it was used to portray Braavos and King’s Landing. In fact, there are some cute references to the TV show at Rocambolesc, an ice-creamery by Jordi Roca from famed nearby restaurant El Celler de Can Roca (which was at one time placed number one in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list). Try the blood orange and mango sorbet popsicle in the shape of a hand, à la Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer.
If you prefer something a little harder, Mon Oncle is an excellent wine bar. Grab a table on the square for Catalan-inspired snacks or a glass of minimal-intervention wine. It’s a fun, casual place to kill a couple hours. Another place in the old town for natural wine is Plaça del Vi 7. Take a seat under the arches and let the owner, a knowledgeable sommelier, help you pick something interesting to drink.
If you’re looking for accommodation near Girona – or a really memorable hotel in the region – the James Bond-esque Hotel Sants Metges is stunning. Just outside Girona, the 15-room luxe digs are housed in a former military fortress, and because it’s on the top of a hill, there are 360-degree views. There’s a moat surrounding the complex, a swimming pool and a high-end, innovative restaurant, Atempo.
The five-star Hostal de la Gavina S’Agaro has a certain old-world charm. In 1932, this beach resort was the first luxury hotel to open in Costa Brava. Created by hotelier Josep Ensesa i Gubert, it sits on a peninsula between two secluded bays, each with a sandy beach. It’s also on the Camino de Ronda trail (see “Walks”), so a good base for exploring the region on foot.
There are plenty of ways to traverse this region, but Eurail is a good, flexible option, especially if you’re visiting several European countries. There are a number of ticket options: a one-country pass, or a Global Pass for unlimited multi-country itineraries linking 31 countries. Eurail covers more than 250,000 kilometres of tracks and you can get a Global Pass for three days, three months or anything in between (children under 11 travel with you for free).
For more on Eurail packages and tickets, visit here.