Saturday 30 August 2014

Castell d’Empordà, near La Bisbal d'Empordà, Catalonia

Dating from the fourteenth century, Castell d’Empordà is perched above the rolling farmland north of La Bisbal d'Empordà near the Costa Brava. Medieval towers constructed from golden stone form the atmospheric centrepiece of this luxurious hotel, which also features a modern wing, an outdoor pool, a spacious sunbathing terrace and a renown restaurant. The garden rooms in the modern block have balconies and large glass windows with far-reaching views taking in the surrounding villages. They are well-equipped with comfortable beds, free Wi-Fi, safes, minibars, rain showers, bathrobes and flat-screen televisions. Kitted out in a cool, contemporary style, these rooms have oak floors and stylish, sold furniture. And unlike the accommodation in the castle itself, the garden rooms are served by a lift.

Thursday 28 August 2014

Lunch at Castell d’Empordà, near La Bisbal d'Empordà, Catalonia

 A historic castle-turned-hotel, Castell d’Empordà serves a fairly lavish lunch with a view for just under 20 euros before water and other drinks. The tables are laid out on a broad spacious terrace in the shadow of the medieval keep shaded by a modernist roof constructed from interlocking rusted iron discs. The set menu offers a choice of three dishes per course. For a starter, the salmon tartar is fresh, nicely dressed with lime and dill, and served with crisp radish, but the portion can be meagre. Among the main courses, the paella-like rice casserole contains generous chunks of fish and black sausage. It can be a little salty and some might find it bitter. Alternatively, the entrecôte steak, served with potatoes, is a big helping of juicy meat, typically cooked rarer than you ask for. For deserts, the creme brûlée is sweet, creamy and satisfying. Leaning heavily on Spain, the wine list is fairly priced For example, a bottle of Ruchel Godello Valdeorras - a crisp, clean, dry white wine - is good value at 17.7 euros.  Castell d’Empordà's good value lunch deservedly attracts plenty of punters and you'll enjoy the buzz, the history and the views across the surrounding fields. 8/10 

Monells, Baix Empordà, Catalonia

Another well-preserved Catalan medieval village, laid back Monells only attracts a smattering of tourists on August evenings.  The distinctive main square is lined by attractive stone archways.

La Bisbal d'Empordà, Catalonia

Best known for its pottery and ceramics, La Bisbal d'Empordà is a quiet old town surrounded by rolling Catalan countryside dotted with medieval villages and tailor-made for cycling. The town's landmark building is the Palace Castle of the bishops of Girona (pictured above), which is surrounded by a small warren of old streets with pavement cafes and restaurants. It is also worth strolling along the tree-lined Daró river bed, which is now dry (pictured below), and along the Avenue de les Voltes with its elegant arcades (also pictured below). 6/10

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Restaurant La Cantonada, C/Del Bisbe, la Bisbal d'Emporda

Pretty much off the tourist trail and not open every evening, Restaurant La Cantonada serves superb, beautifully-presented Catalan food. This unpretentious eatery with unremarkable decor offers a three-course menu for 20 euros (includes desert/coffee and water), with supplements for certain dishes. Before you tuck into your starters, the gruff, but helpful, waiter will bring you some appetisers, such as a crostinis, topped with a tapenade, and a thick creamy soup in a small glass.  Among the starters, the gorgonzola ravoili with feta cheese, pesto and tomatoes is both excellent and filling. There is also a rich, thick and delicious, gazpacho-style dish, served with a big dollop of cream. It is quite sweet. The humous and parsley salad and the parmesan salad are both fresh and large.

Peratallada, Baix Empordà, Catalonia

One of the finest of the many medieval villages in the Baix Empordà region of Catalonia, Peratallada has largely been bypassed by modern development. Enclosed by crumbling walls, the village is still a maze of cobbled streets clustered around an ancient castle. On the edge of Peratallada is the stately twelfth century Romanesque church of St. Stephen.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Restaurant Ibèric, Valls, Ullastret, Catalonia

Although it has some comfortable seats on a pleasant terrace facing Ullastret's medieval stone walls, Restaurant Ibèric can be devoid of diners in the evening when the day trippers have gone home. The food is quite good, but doesn't make up for the lack of atmosphere. On the a la carte menu, most of the fish dishes are expensive by local standards - costing around 20 euros each, but the meat dishes are more reasonable at about 14 euros apiece.  There may also be a long list of specials, substituting for dishes that are off.  After you've ordered, a waitress might bring you some moist and delicious pieces of tortilla as a (free) appetiser. Among the starters, the tuna salad (8.85 euros) is generous and well seasoned. The chunks of fish, which are fresh and meaty, are accompanied by tomatoes and onions, as well as greenery. The steamed mussels (8.80 euros) are also plentiful, but are soaked in vinegar, which won't be to everyone's tastes. For a main course, the boar stew is a rich, meaty dish, served with a thick sauce, complete with mushrooms and onions. It is satisfying without being scintillating. The Catalan broad beans, however, are laced with too much fennel, giving the dish a strong aniseed flavour. You may not need desert, as you get a pile of tiny chocolates with your coffee, providing the needed sugar kick. Unfortunately, Ullastret seems quiet in the evening and the looming stone walls opposite Restaurant Ibèric can get a bit oppressive after dark. 6/10 

Monday 25 August 2014

Pals, Catalonia

The heavily-restored and touristy medieval village of Pals rises above a flat plain running down to the Mediterranean. The ancient fortifications, stone houses, cobbled streets, Romanesque tower, time-worn archways and verdant pot plants give Pals an undoubted charm, but, in August, you may have to enjoy this period piece with coach loads of tourists. Although there are plenty of pavement cafes and souvenir shops catering to the visitors, the commercialism is low key and restrained. Pals is certainly worth a wander round, but try and avoid peak season. 7/10

Sunday 24 August 2014

Cycling in Parc Natural del Montgrí, near L'Escala, Catalonia

Criss-crossed by hiking and biking trails, the Parc Natural del Montgrí is a fine place to take a robust mountain bike for a traffic-free spin. Although there is a fast stretch of newish tarmac near the campsite on route to L'Escala, you'll spend much of your time bouncing over loose stones and rocks, making some of the climbs quite challenging. It is easy to get lost - the trees can obscure your views of the sea, so look out for the occasional green sign marking the long-distance coastal hiking path. If you work your way from L'Escala across to Estartit and the imposing Castell del Montgrí, you'll probably end up climbing several hundred metres and travelling a good ten kilometres  You might even have to navigate the odd flock of sheep barring the way. There are a couple of lovely old country houses tucked away in the hills above Estartit and it is not clear where their private land ends and this recently-designated national park begins - more signs are needed. Still, it is fun to explore this peaceful patch of greenery. 7/10

Saturday 23 August 2014

Cal Galan, Corriol de l'Usach, L'Escala, Catalonia

Tucked away in the back streets between L'Escala's small bays, Cal Galan is an enticing restaurant serving hearty food at heart-warming prices. The walls are covered with black and white prints celebrating the town's longstanding fishing industry. Still, the appealing menu is meat-heavy. To start, the cured ham served on bread is delicious and generous, as are the local anchovies on bread, particularly if you like a salt kick. Both dishes are just five euros.

Castelló d'Empúries, Catalonia

A pleasant old town perched on a small hill, Castelló d'Empúries is a network of narrow medieval streets clustered around an unexpectedly substantial thirteenth century Gothic church. With its magnificent ornate doorway overlooked by statues of the twelve apostles, Santa Maria is well worth going to see.  Home to several other fine medieval buildings, Castelló d'Empúries is a good place for a drink on route to Figures and Cadaqués.  7/10

Cycling in and around L'Escala, Catalonia

The leafy 2km cycle path that separates the Greco-Roman ruins of Empúries from the fine beaches north of L'Escala can get pretty busy in the summer. You'll find yourself weaving around pedestrians, but the mildly undulating ride is both fun and scenic.

Scale Bikes, Avinguda Riells, L'Escala

Just returned Scale bikes bearing mud from the off-road trails north of Empuries
Offering very reasonable hire rates on respectable off-road Scott bikes, Scale Bikes is situated near the start of the coastal cycle track between Riells and L'Escala. It is also well placed for rides on the trails that criss-cross the forested hills of El Montgrí between L'Escala and Estartit. There may only be one shop assistant on duty meaning you may have to wait, but otherwise the service is exemplary. Available in adult and children's sizes, the hire bikes seem new, comfortable and well-maintained. Hire rates start at eight euros for four hours up to 70 euros for two weeks. Helmets are an additional two euros. 8/10

Friday 22 August 2014

Hostal Restaurant el Roser, Carrer Església, l'Escala, Catalonia

Between Monday and Friday, Hostal Restaurant el Roser offers a three course menu for 14 euros. It looks like a good deal on paper, but don't be tempted. You'd probably be better off going for the 28 euro menu, a la carte or finding another restaurant. With the cheap menu, there are several options for each course, but the food can be disappointing and crudely improvised. The starters tend to be mediocre. The eggs cooked with tomatoes and peppers lack flavour, while the vegetable soup is okay and the spaghetti (billed as ravioli) with cheese and pesto is passable. The reasonable Russian salad lacks seasoning. Things may go down hill when you move into the main courses. The pork and sausage stew may mysteriously morph into a plate of leathery lamb and chips, while the squid a la plancha can be missing the promised tomato sauce. Although the calamaris are cooked well enough, they come with no other accompaniments, except some garlic seasoning. The seabass with stewed vegetables is the pick of the bunch, even though it can be a bony fish. For kids, the cannelloni (eight euros from the a la carte menu) is quite good, except the meat can be overwhelmed by the cheese sauce.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

The city of Girona, Catalonia

Girona is a gem. The core of this charming Catalan city is an extraordinarily well-preserved and diverse medieval quarter on the east bank of the Riu Onyar. Stone steps and alleyways thread their way through the arresting ancient buildings climbing up the steep slopes to the lofty city walls. Wrought iron balconies, ornate lampposts and stone archways adorn the atmospheric old streets. There is an abundance of stylish shops, restaurants and bars on the tree-lined Rambla de Llibertat, the neighbouring streets and the tightly packed Jewish Quarter. Architecture buffs will admire the Catalan Gothic Cathedral, the nearby Esglesia de Sant Feliu and many other handsome remnants from the Middle Ages. Although you will spend much of your visit wandering around the Barri Vell, it also well worth crossing one of the footbridges to explore the nineteenth century Mercadel district and the nearby Parc de La Devesa with its towering plane trees. 9/10

Girona Cathedral, Catalonia

The west front of Girona's grand Catalan Gothic cathedral, which dates from the eleventh century. The lavish sculptures of the eighteenth century Rococo facade have mostly been replaced by 1960s copies, according to the Rough Guide to Spain.

Placa Independencia, Girona

Marking victory over Napoleon in the Spanish War of Independence, Placa Independencia, in the Mercadal district of the city, is an elegant nineteenth century square lined with trees and pavement cafes.

Girona's city walls, Catalonia

The fine old Catalan city of Girona is still partially enclosed by its surprisingly high medieval walls, which have fended off many an invading army. Thanks to some extensive restoration, you can stroll around this lofty walkway, which dates from the ninth century, and survey the historic city and the countryside beyond. Every so often, you come to an imposing gatehouse and can scale a spiral staircase for an even better vantage point. The walls pass many of the city's elegant buildings, overlooking the ancient stone alleyways around the university and the cathedral, before descending into the imposing fortifications next to the handsome Benedictine abbey of Sant Pere de Galligants. 9/10

Le Bistrot, Pujada de Sant Domènec, Girona, Catalonia

An old-school restaurant in the heart of Girona, Le Bistrot seems almost unmarred by the tourists flowing through this atmospheric city. It serves traditional Catalan food to tables in a timeless dining room and laid out on a terrace at the foot of ancient stone steps leading up to the city's venerable university. Le Bistrot fills up quickly on an August weekday lunchtime and the tables outside are hard to get. If you end up in the sprawling dining room indoors, try and secure a table next to one of the tall handsome windows overlooking the verdant pot plants on the balcony. The three-course lunch menu, including a drink and decent bread, for 15 euros is great value. To start, you can have a big plate of mussels. Although a few of the black shells may be closed, most contain fresh, juicy morsels.  The selection of starters also includes a plate of roasted vegetables (tomato, onion and artichoke), decent salads and good macaroni.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Punta Montgo, Catalonia

The bay at Cala Montgo, pictured from Punto Montgo

Torroella de Montgrí, Catalonia

The ancient Catalan town of Torroella de Montgrí pictured from a footpath leading up to Castell de Montgrí 

Monday 18 August 2014

Platja de Llafranc, Catalonia

Sheltered by steep green hills, the beach at Llafranc is picturesque, often crowded and home to scores of plush yachts. When the wind whips up, the waves can crash on to the coarse sand knocking down raucous kids and even their dads in their wake. A smart tree-lined promenade overlooks the beach, there are numerous pricey restaurants on hand and you can pay to park a few hundred yards up the hill.  Popular with pasty British tourists, Platja de Llafranc is a pleasant place to spend a few hours. 7/10 

Sunday 17 August 2014

Beaches at St Martí d'Empúries, Catalonia

The view north from the hamlet of St Martí d'Empúries. Kite surfers speckle the Gulf of Roses.

Sunday 10 August 2014

The Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100

Gliding through the finishing line
A rare opportunity to let rip along London's roads without having to worry about cars and traffic lights, the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100 is a treat for any amateur cyclist. A very well-organised event, the ride starts at the Olympic Park, heads through the heart of London, into Richmond Park and past Hampton Court before climbing into the Surrey Hills.  The 100 mile route is supposed to take in Leith Hill and Box Hill. But, for the 2014 edition, torrential rain resulted in a diversion away from these climbs, reducing the course to 86 miles and less than 900 metres of climbing. In other words, this is a flattish, fast sportive and you might find yourself zipping along pretty quickly. When you head out of the Olympic Park on to the nippy A12, you'll find it weird, but exhilarating, to be cruising along such a wide road without a car in sight.

Thursday 7 August 2014