[CATALONIA, SPAIN] — So I was sitting in a cool hotel on the edge of the Sahara one day before I was scheduled to fly back to the States. I’d been on the road for a month in Portugal and Morocco, but I wasn’t ready to go back quite yet.
So I cancelled my return flight, flew to Barcelona, walked up to the Hertz desk and asked “Can I rent a car for two months?” “Si! Si, Señor!”
I didn’t really have a plan or destination in mind, but I looked at a map and the towering mountains of the Spanish Pyrenees and just headed in that direction. Didn’t really know anything about this area and, with little time for research, I just looked on Relais & Chateaux website and found a cool looking hotel in a town I’d never heard of — La Seu d’Urgell — but figured I’d just go there, get a map and root around for something cool. Boy did I luck out.
I got in late, ate and fell fast asleep. Woke up with a grin the next sunny morning, got a big latte, a map and sat out on the hotel terrace, giddy about where to go next. No plan. A lot of time. I was in heaven.
This is just a stunning part of Spain, about two hours north of Barcelona, with perfect loopy driving roads, no crowds and mountains out the wazoo as Spain backs right up to the Pyrenean border with France. Yumyumyum.
There are more than a dozen different natural park preserves all along the spine with France. Small villages huddled by mountain lakes. Endless perfect trails and small hotels. You don’t read much, if anything, about this area in the American travel press. Even a little harder to find a lot of info in English. So I was there just poking my way around. Stumbling onto one remarkable thing after another.
How come nobody ever talks about this amazing place?
When you think of of Catalunya, you think beaches and flags and tapas. But nobody ever talks about the amazing Catalan Pyrenees just two hours north of Barcelona.
There are more than a dozen natural parks that straddle the French-Spanish border, each with its own personality If you like driving, riding, rafting or biking, this area is your heaven. Endless zigzagging roads carving up, down and around a gazillion undulating hills and mountains. This long, slender valley is world famous for its smooth, uncrowded cruising roads, which is why the Tour de France ran through here in 2016. And more so for touring motorcycles. I saw more purring BMW road cruisers than cars around here. (And the occasional group of Harley People, wearing their predictable little costumes, making stupid noise.) And the rest were groups of road bike teams going “huthuthut!” up the steep hills.
The Serra del Cadí. The whole town is oriented towards this massive big brow range.
Like staring down the unibrow of Harry Hamlin. (Some youngers may have to google that). The Serra del Cadí. As the sun and clouds move throughout the day, it looks like a completely different scene. Smiley. To broody. To stormy. Back to smiley again. Never gets old. (As opposed to Harry, who’s stone-like performances are the same in every scene and age faster than an ice cube melts). There’s a whole park build around this Rhodesian Ridgeback of a mountain range — the Cadí-Moixeró Natural Park. I only had a few nights here, but will definitely come back.
La Seu d’Urgell is a humble little town with a nice old quarter. But what makes it perfect is its location smack in the middle of all these tallboy Spanish Pyrenees and easy access to Andorra and all the other Aran highlands. I still can’t pronounce it. (La say-u dur-zhey.)
La Seu d’Urgell is the perfect base to explore the Spanish Pyrenees. Perfect hilltop tops, towering mountains, roaring rivers and scenic roads.
This is the capital of Adventureland. Biking. Riding. Rafting. Kayaking. Hiking. Mountain Climbing. Just about everything up-and-down. It was also the base for the river sports part of the Barcelona Olympics and there’s a world class kayak course that flows right through town. Perfect to chill for an hour or two watching others get wet. But also, with all that athlete and fan housing there’s a ton of housing options at every price range, making the ugly modern buildings likable.
But the old quarter is cool too, with peeps living here since pre-Roman times under dark covered stone passageways and restaurants. The big Romanesque cathedral in the middle of town is know for its oldness and Romanesqueness.
This is the amazing view over La Seu d’Urgell from my hotel (see details below)
This part of Catalunya is loaded with hilltop towns… you know… if you’re into that sort of thing. 😳
Arsèguel is a perfect little mountaintop town to explore, straight out of Spanish Central Casting. Pretty as a Penélope Cruz. It’s just off the main N260 highway that weaves through this whole valley. Perched up high so it can say Hi to all the steep mountains that surround it.
Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park is not far from La Seu d’Urgell as the crow flies. But the roads are windy and up and down through all the picturesque valleys — you can see why this is the motorcycle touring capital of Spain…and you’ll be the minority to all the purring BMWs. It’s pretty much a slalom course the whole way, leftrightleftrightleft. My biceps got bigger. Plan on about 1.5 to two hours to get to the park.
The Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park is about the longest-named park I can recall. Loosely translated, it means “The winding streams and St. Maurice lake park”. That’s damn romantic for a park name.
It nuzzles right up under the sweet-smelling underarm of France, right along the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Like most European parks, this one’s free.
There are some great, easy hikes through here. You can pretty much drive right up into the park, then it’s a short hour or so walk until you get right smack into the good stuff. You can also stop in the little town of Espot and they have 4WD taxis that will take you right up to the top of the park! ( I didn’t try this, but saw them on the road.)
This view is really distorting, such steep mountains righthere that you don’t realize just how big they really are. It’s so massive and in your face the whole hike, yet pictures make it seem like a humble little rock pie. That’s a 3,000m mountain and the elevation gain is about the same!
I tell ya, this park is something else. It’s the only NATIONAL park in Catalunya, the rest are regional, so you’d think it would be crowded out the wazoo. But see this group of beautiful moo-cows? Not only did they serve as perfect props, relaxing about in their fine taupe shoe colors, but on the day I was there last summer, there were more of them than people I saw during my four hour hike. No one but me and just a couple of other lookie loos; not a yahoo in site.
I think you’d like it here. 😳
Seriously, one of the prettiest and easiest hikes around. Zigzagging between the cows and the lake and that massive cloven foot mountain. I only passed a couple of couples on my four hours I spent up here with my head in the clouds.
This park is huge, I just dipped into the eastern edge from Espot. There are over 200 lakes made from glacier droppings. And this little range here is a half dozen peaks over 3,000 metres. All up.
RRrrraaaarrrrr-rrrrarrrr. RarrrrSee what I mean about this big devil rock? 👹 It’s like a gigantic upside down goat hoof. A 3,000 metre granite chunk thrusting from the valley floor, right in your face.Amazing that all this used to be under the ocean. And then carved up by glaciers. Now, not. I love shit like that. The earth is cool. I like the earth.
The best part about the El Castell de Ciutat hotel is that all the rooms are oriented overlooking the valley.
El Castell de Ciutat is a nice little family-run hotel high on a hilltop just outside the town of La Seu d’Urgell, the perfect base to explore this whole area of the Spanish Pyrenees.
It’s a little old school, but clean and super friendly people who can show you where you need to go. It’s a Relais & Chateaux property, so you know they’ll have a great restaurant, which they do, in a glassed-in dining room looking straight out over the entire valley and the looming Cadí-Moixeró hunk of solid rock.
Super nice people, very helpful on pointing out places to go. It was not quite up to par with the typical Relais & Chateaux, a little out of date, but I’ve read that it has been undergoing a restoration.
The Catalan Pyrenees are a pretty quick drive from the heart of Barcelona. About two hours. about an hour and a half from the airport.
I like stuff like this.
Here is one of the best articles in English I’ve seen about the Aragon region in The Telegraph — I wish I had it at the time.
I could never find a lot about this area in English. But here’s the top hotels in La Seu d’Urgell on TripAdvisor.
I pretty much just ate at the restaurant in the hotel — it is a Relais & Chateaux property after all — because I’d drive and hike all day long, then get back, shower, order the lamb and watch the sunset over the valley below. But here’s TripAdvisor’s top restaurants in the area.
And very little in Lonely Planet. And some pretty good overview details in the Rough Guide. And a little on this website Rural Pyrenees Guide.
Here’s a beautiful article in National Geographic on Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park. I wish I’d seen this before going. DOH! And some decent tips on TripAdvisor. And a really sweet review of the park by the Belgian travel blogger Wonderful Wanderings.
— Last Visited May 2015 —
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