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Beyond Barcelona – day trips for the Catalan-curious

(Ahem. As I was saying.)

After more than four years living la vida local in Barcelona, I have to admit I feel I’ve exhausted every major day trip destination a person can conceivably cover without a car. Don’t get me wrong – Barcelona is blessed with an impressive hit list of hot spots all relatively accessible by public transport. I’m thinking, as most visitors tend to, of the beaches of Sitges, the jauntily painted houses hanging over Girona’s River Onyar or the torqueing alleyways of old-town Tarragona.

Girona houses over Anyar River

Girona’s pretty palette of riverside houses

Cool as they are, these destinations lose their appeal somewhat on the umpteenth occasion, so I’ve started venturing further to discover new places to take family and friends on their Barcelona visits. Here are four towns you can do in a day from the Catalan capital, and still be back in BCN for supper.

Vilanova i la Geltrú – sand and slush puppies

Board the train from Barcelona’s Estació de Sants, wait around 35 minutes then watch the throngs disembark at the Costa Dorada’s sparkly cynosure, the seemingly ever-sunny Sitges. Stay on the train just a few minutes more and it will pull in to Vilanova i la Geltrú – a bracingly unpretentious city that few tourists ever get to discover. Almost equidistant between Barcelona and Tarragona, Vilanova is altogether less congested and confected than neighbouring Sitges, with a longer Rambla than Barcelona, medieval walls and a stunning marina.

To sample some traditional Vilanova fishermen’s fare, seek out one of the portside restaurants on Passeig de Ribes Roges and scan the menu to make sure they have xató. This fresh-fish salad features cod and anchovies as the main ingredients, dressed with almond-based romesco sauce, but the real star of the show is the garlic, which you’ll be telling your grand-kids about in years to come.

xato salad from Vilanova

Xató salad – you can taste the garlic from here

After lunch, Vilanova’s beaches are just a short walk away. There are five in total, fringed with golf course-like grass and much wider and longer than the urban beaches you’ll find in Barcelona. Take a stroll down between turf and surf and plonk yourself there for the duration, till it’s time for the train back to Sants.

Oh, and don’t forget to order a ‘mig-mig’ to go while you’re walking back for the train. This drink is another Vilanova specialty; a unique take on ‘horchata’, the tiger nut-inspired drink that defies logical labelling, in this case blended with lemon slush. Trust me, this Vilanova version is gorgeous, and extremely refreshing. Just remember it’s pronounced more like ‘meech-meech’ than ‘meeg-meeg’ to avoid sniggering baby hamster comparisons from the locals.

Vilanova beaches

Less cramped than Sitges, the beaches of Vilanova are long and wide

Rolling northwards to Rupit

Fair enough, you’ll need a car for this one, but if wheels are no object then you might want to head north for an hour and a half’s drive to the rustic, rural and rocky Catalan village of Rupit.

entrance-to-Rupit

Bucolic beauty an hour and a half’s drive from Barcelona

A long-time favourite destination for herds of Spanish school children (but don’t let that put you off), Rupit is a fantastically photogenic village straddling a stream and boasting its own suspension foot bridge, cobblestoned streets and cottage balconies bedecked with the ubiquitous red geraniums.

Rupit-hanging-bridge

Rupit – trip trap toe into a bygone era

You could easily spend a pleasant couple of hours just wandering around and soaking up the feel of the place, but if you’re up for something a bit more active, don’t miss the riverside walk starting behind the village in the direction of the Salt de Sallent (a spectacular 300m waterfall in the middle of the cliff-ridden Catalan countryside). From Rupit you could make it there and back within two hours, depending on how muddy parts of the route are.

An alternative from Rupit would be to take the 20-minute drive south west to the slightly more touristy but still stunning village of Tavertet, perched on a pinnacle overlooking the Sau Collsacabra valley and dam.

Rupit has a handful of eateries serving up home-cooked Catalan dishes, and I especially liked Ca l’Estragues on 4 Carrer de la Esglesia. Favoured by locals, it has a warm, family feel and the food is robust, which will stand you in good stead if you’re here to hike.

Caldes de Montbui – hot springs and healing waters

Having spent an unforgettable weekend last summer at Caldes de Montbui’s Escaldarium festival, it still surprises me how many Barcelona locals seem never to have heard of this town. With its thermal springs, exceptionally well-preserved Roman ruins and clutch of Picasso originals, it deserves to rank up there among the best of Barcelona day trip options.

caldes-fountain

The ‘Font del Lleó’ – Lion Fountain, spurting out scalding hot springs

The town has an impressive tourist information centre, which hutches up alongside the Thermalia Museum in a 14th-century former hospital on the other side of the square from the Lion Fountain. I would head there first to get oriented and plan the day. They also run cut-price guided tours of the town’s main points of interest, which include the Roman Baths, hot springs, traditional outdoor laundry houses and 12th-century prison tower.

A trip to Caldes wouldn’t be complete without sampling the salutary springs for yourself, so aim to book a spa treatment in advance in one of the main hotels (Hotel Balneari Termes Victoria being one great example).

No car needed for this one – from Barcelona just catch the Sagales bus from 52 Passeig de Sant Joan, with a total journey time of around 50 minutes.

Vic – old-school charcuterie and charm

The northern town of Vic is known for a couple of things in these parts – fervent Catalan nationalism and llonganisa sausages. Its arcaded plaza is the biggest main square in Catalonia, and hosts the town’s market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. If you time your visit to coincide, you’ll see a sprawl of stalls peddling products for which Vic is famous, including the obligatory pork offerings.

Sadly, I was there on a Sunday, at which point all the main square lacked was some tumbleweed. On the upside, the food was brilliant, and not a sausage in sight.

central plaza of Vic, Catalonia

The arcaded central plaza, the morning after the market

From the central plaza take your pick of windy lanes leading into Vic’s old quarter, but don’t expect to find that same lane again on your way back. It’s a medieval maze, though if you’re in luck you’ll stumble across the Cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle, alongside which sits the renowned Episcopal Museum, housing masterpieces of Romanesque and Gothic art.

Vic Roman Temple

Vic’s Roman Temple – only rediscovered late 19th century

For food, try the faultless Denominación de Origen, wedged between the Plaza Mayor and the Cathedral. The ‘pica-pica’ tasting menu works out well if you can’t face large set courses, and will let you sample a wide range of Catalan cooking in this most loyal heartland. Transport-wise, you can of course cruise up to Vic by car, or catch a train from Barcelona’s Sants Station, journey time around an hour and a half.

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Caldes de Montbui – the Spanish spa town with one seriously fiery festival

Barcelona day trippers, you’re going to like this.

If you’ve already sunbathed in Sitges, made like a monk around Montserrat and gone giddy at the mix of modern and medieval in gorgeous Girona, here’s an idea.

Take a 50-minute bus ride to a little-known town just 30km from Barcelona, blessed with curative thermal springs, magnificent Roman ruins and the second-largest cache of Picasso originals in Catalonia. Not to mention a summer festival where you get singed and soaked in equal measure.

Welcome to the Spanish spa town of Caldes de Montbui.

Font del Lleó Caldes de Montbui

The town’s centerpiece  ‘Font del Lleó’ – its 76-degree springs among the hottest in Europe

Perched on a tectonic fault, Caldes de Montbui is characterised by the thermal waters that flow up into its streets, breaking through the surface at a toasty 76 degrees. Nowadays, just like in Roman times, locals make the most of this subterranean source for leisure, craftmaking and medicinal purposes.

Termas-Romanas

Ruins of Roman thermal baths – just one part of an entire spa complex

Witches, wicker and washerwomen

On the edge of the old town sits the Lavadero de la Portalera, named for the four gates in Caldes’ medieval wall that used to lead into this public laundry house.

This is the realm of women.

Even today, on a quiet Saturday morning, an elderly woman clad in an apron and impressively long rubber gloves hunches her body over the largest trough, dooking the dirty laundry into the thermal waters redirected from the Font del Lleó. The thermal waters, it’s said, leave clothes particularly clean, white and soft.

Fer safareig

Back before washing machines were invented, these laundry houses were the social hub of the town. Women (they were, predictably, exclusively women), would line up from five in the morning, laden with the household’s dirty cloths and clothes, to scour, sponge and sluice them into spotlessness.

The women found other canny uses of the thermal waters that welled up into their town. They would often bring pulses and vegetables to cook in the vats of naturally scalding water, while wicker would be left to soak, becoming easily malleable before made into large baskets destined for the fishing wharves of Barcelona.

As the women worked, they nattered, leading to a fascinating set of connotations in Catalan.

The phrase ‘fer safareig’ means to do laundry or to wash clothes, but it also means ‘to gossip; to chat about everything and nothing, everyone and no-one’. The word safareig is behind the modern Spanish ‘chafardear’, meaning to gossip, and gives new meaning to the British phrase ‘to wash your dirty linen in public’.

Fer Safareig Caldes de Montbui

But wet clothes weren’t the only thing to be hung in Caldes de Montbui.

Which brings me on to the witches, and another compelling quirk in the Catalan language. The expression ‘fer bugada’ means to do the laundry or to gossip – but it also means ‘to confess’.

In 1619, following torture, several women accused of witchcraft in Caldes ‘confessed’ to the crime, and were promptly hung from gallows erected in the town’s main square. This wasn’t the first time the town had been associated with witchcraft, though. Its thermal waters are said to have a legendary origin of their own, conjured through the acts of witches themselves.

And every second Saturday of July, the people of Caldes gather for the Escaldarium festival to celebrate this mythic source.

Expecting a fairly standard Catalan correfoc celebration (after you’ve lived in Barcelona for a few years, you get used to the sight of burning tridents and fire-breathing dragons), I wasn’t sure what to make of the news that Escaldarium would also include a trip to the gallows.

And I really wasn’t prepared for the spectacle we were about to witness.

witches by Quim Dasquens

On the Friday evening around 9pm, some eight women dressed in period garb were shackled and paraded through the town, flanked by men with whips and preceded by two sombre-faced drummers.

Crowds of townspeople thronged along behind them, as the witches wailed and protested, goaded by men in the crowd clamouring “Fora bruixes!” (out with the witches!) in a worryingly animated fashion.

“Powerful, isn’t it?” one female onlooker said in hushed tones to her neighbour.

I studied the faces of the spectators lined up on the edge of the town, watching as the witches were led out towards the gallows, which had been assembled some distance away in the midst of Caldes’ vegetable patches. The morbid procession of drummers, chanting chain of witches and whip-happy guards made its way out to the scaffolds, with some of the women feigning to faint as they approached their mock death.

town watching

“Lead to the hanging place, where chimneys are smoking a warning of ash, ash, and the streets are strangely ebullient”

One by one (and I still don’t know how they did it), the guards slipped a noose around each witch’s neck and hung her from the gallows. “Make sure they’re all dead!” the middle-aged gent standing next to me bellowed, making me jump out of my skin.

Obviously satisfied they were indeed mock-dead, the hangman took each witch back down, and lined up the ‘corpses’ at the side of the gallows.

What with the forceful acting, the incessant drums and the het-up crowd, the whole performance was so lifelike that it was deeply disturbing, and I had to wonder at the children being allowed to look on from the crowd (albeit a good distance away). I escaped back to the hotel, the noise of the death drums seeming to sync with the thud of blood as I ran.

gallows by Quim Dasquens

Escaldarium – a fiesta of hellfire and water

2014 is the 20th anniversary of the Escaldarium festival, which takes place on the Saturday night in the town’s main square, right on the witching hour itself.

Earlier in the evening you can catch Catalan Sardana dancing and live outdoor music, but the showstopper is the nine dances of the Caldes devils. You’re actively encouraged to take part in the alternating dances of fire and water, under the proviso that you don a hood, protect your eyes, and to quote the Town Council’s advice, “follow the devils’ instructions at all times”.

Scalding-Escaldarium

Caldes throws one hell of a summer party…

What seemed like the entire 17-thousand-strong population of Caldes crammed into the central plaza, excitedly awaiting the grand entrance of the dancing devils. Meanwhile, the Irish band on stage played a rousing set – original music that was part traditional Celtic knees-up and part Catalan folk melodies. The result was a triumph.

Ring of Fire by Quim Dasquens

Burn baby burn

Suddenly, the lights dimmed, the pyrotechnics kicked in, flames burst forth and incandescent devils whirled like burning dervishes. The crowd were ecstatic, leaping around in the midst of the action, as the rain of sparks shot in every direction and the music picked up intensity.

Correfoc by Quim Dasquens

With the first water dance, though, the mood subdued, and we raised our arms to be dowsed in the jets arcing out across the square.

waterworks by Quim Dasquens

In the heat of the Spanish summer, in the heart of Catalonia, experiencing the fusion of these two elemental forces was something truly unique, and all my expectations of a ‘typical’ Catalan correfoc were firmly extinguished.

After an hour of being singed and saturated, the Escaldarium dances came to an end, but not before fireworks had etched a flaming finale into the night sky. The crowd cheered, dripped slightly, and kept on partying, with live concerts taking place into the early hours.

For more photos of the fiesta, visit the Facebook page of local photographer Quim Dasquens, whose shots of the evening capture its spirit perfectly.

After the party – what to consume in Caldes de Montbui

Caldes has carved out a reputation for itself based on the quality of locally sourced ingredients and lovingly made products, and you’ll find plenty to choose from in the town’s shops and market stalls.

Carnivores will love Caldes, which is famous for its long spicy sausage (llonganissa), while pasta lovers should pick up a packet or two of fideus (short pasta noodles) made with local waters since the 1700s by generations of the Sanmartí family in their Caldes factory.

For a lunch or dinner that will put hairs on your chest, head to restaurant Robert de Nola, whose raison d’être is ‘quality Catalan cuisine’. This is the type of place where the chic, understated décor, courtesy of the waiters and personal attention of the chef immediately make you realise you’re in for a treat.

The menu is dominated by fresh, seasonal ingredients and complemented by an extensive choice of wines from their own cellar. Catalan classics like crema catalana and mató cheese with honey adorn the dessert list, but if it’s on offer, I recommend you opt for the typically Balearic pudding of flaó. This cheesecake-like sweet dates back to the Middle Ages, mixing mató cheese with herbs and mounted on a biscuit base.

Flao by Julie Sheridan

Medieval Spanish dessert of ‘flaó’, made with fresh mint

Takeaway gifts for the hungry hordes back home include the locally grown honey (mel), which is perfect paired with mató cheese, typically made from goats’ or ewes’ milk and served as a dessert.

And to wash it all down? If you’re one of those people who likes life on the edge, try the locally brewed beer (those thermal waters get everywhere, seriously), called Calderina, introduced by the townsfolk as the world’s first ‘thermal beer’ in 2012.

If quaffing thermal waters isn’t your thing, a safer bet are the locally produced liqueurs, either the aniseed-sweet Anis Taronja, which dates back to 1918, or absinthe-green coloured Flors del Remei. Boasting supposedly salutary properties, this orange and green combo of cordials are consumed en masse by health-conscious locals, typically alongside the sweet toasted bread (that’s the best translation I can come up with) of ‘carquinyolis’ (or ‘carquiñoles’ in Spanish).

Carquinyolis by onnoth

Caldes is famous for its ‘carquinyolis’ – made with almonds

It’s fair to say these sweet bites are held in high regard by the locals, who will proudly regale you with tales of the traditional technique. Bakers would leave the almonds on which the recipe is based to blanch under the red-hot waters of the Lion Fountain, rendering them easier to peel and absorbing the health-giving properties of the thermal spring waters. This technique is no longer in use, but the repute of Caldes’ authentic carquinyolis is still a source of local pride.

When to visit

Ideally the second Saturday of July, when the Escaldarium festival takes place, but if you can’t manage that, aim for the second weekend in October when the town celebrates its Festa Major. Expect devils, drums and a downright demonic spectacle.

And if you really can’t manage either of those, visit on a weekend that takes in the second Sunday of the month, when from 10am till 2pm a local market is erected in the town’s main square.

Where to stay

Back in medieval times, Caldes de Montbui was famous as the leading spa centre in Catalonia and the second-ranking in the whole Iberian Peninsula, in terms of both the number and quality of its specialist spa facilities. Even as recently as the 19th century, Caldes had eight separate spas. Nowadays, though, your spa accommodation choices are happily more straightforward.

I stayed at the Hotel Balneari Termes Victoria, a 3-star hotel right off the main square, with air-con, free Wi-Fi and most importantly, an inbuilt spa facility where ‘thermalism’ is guaranteed to rejuvenate even the most jaded Barcelona inhabitant.

The view from my double room was enough in itself to kick start my senses, but the best was yet to come.

View from Hotel Termes Victoria

View from my balcony at the Termes Victoria Hotel

The basement floor of the hotel is given over entirely to the relaxing, revitalising powers of Caldes’ thermal waters, which are tapped and channelled into inbuilt saunas, swimming pools and jacuzzis.

If you’re a guest in the hotel, you’re welcome to use the spa facilities whenever suits you throughout the day, but for a seriously spine-tingling experience, book on to one of the hotel’s ‘nocturnal circuits’. This night-time bathing tradition goes back to Roman times, and essentially means you will walk into a tealight-lit, incense-infused retreat, where your biggest quandary in life is whether to slip into the bubble bath or sweat off the stress in the sauna.

While you’re deciding, take your pick from the mineral water, herbal teas, fresh fruit sticks and Cava on ice laid out enticingly for you in the relaxation zone. Yip, in Caldes they know how to sauna.

Cava fruit at sauna

Catch a bus to Caldes

From Barcelona, you essentially have two options to reach Caldes de Montbui – car or bus. By car, head for the C-33 out of Barcelona and stay on this motorway till you get past Montcada, where you should look out for signs for the C-59. Once on the C-59, it’s a straight road to Caldes. By bus, it’s a skoosh – catch the Sagales bus from Passeig de Sant Joan no. 52 in Barcelona – the journey is a bargain four euros and takes around 50 minutes.

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Chasing waterfalls in Catalonia

Next Monday, the 9th of June, is a bank holiday here in Barcelona (at last a long weekend!), and if you’re stuck for ideas in the face of closed shops and a stowed seafront, I have a suggestion.

Hire a car and head for the hinterland.

Because although the beaches of Barcelona and the Costa Brava itself are rightly renowned, inland, Catalan waterfalls are channelling their way through some of the most achingly beautiful countryside you’ve ever seen (and I say that coming from Scotland).

Las cascadas de Cataluña

Up in the Collsacabra region of Catalonia, north east of the town of Vic, is a scene of such natural beauty you’ll be amazed more tourists don’t make the effort to visit. Set into a natural amphitheatre-cum-canyon, La Cascada de La Foradada de Cantonigrós is named after the ‘hole’ in the mountain that offsets it. From above, the waterfall seems to appear from nowhere amid the tree-clad terrain.

Cantonigros-from-the-top

Hike on down, however, and around 45 minutes later you may seriously be considering skinny dipping.

Foradada-Catalunya by Julie Sheridan

The river above drapes itself over eroded rocks, spilling out into a shallow pool ideal for paddling or picnicking alongside. Small stepping stones signpost the way across the river, allowing you to go round back and venture through the gap in the rock to stand right behind the waterfall itself.

If you can, aim to visit in spring or early summer, when the flow of water is at its fullest and the surrounding vegetation at its lushest.

cantonigros-waterfall by Julie Sheridan

Take me to the water

From Barcelona, take the C17 road north past the town of Granollers all the way up to Vic, where it turns into the C25. Circumnavigate Vic on this ring road and look for signs for the local road C153, following signs for the village of Cantonigrós. The village itself is tiny, and you need to look out for the football pitch and park nearby (parking is free). Along one side of the football pitch (behind the goal posts) you’ll see a rocky path – take this path and you’ll encounter increasingly rocky terrain. Follow the track all the way down, and in around 45 minutes’ time you’ll start to hear the tinkle of wild water.

Eventually the path opens out onto the rocky backdrop of the waterfall, where you can happily spend a couple of hours exploring and having a picnic on the river bank. Coming back up is more tricky, obviously, but trust me, it’s worth it.

From a stunning stone village to the Salt del Sallent 

Once you’ve huffed your way back up the track to the car, rejoin the C153 and follow signs for the hilltop town of Rupit. Dump the car at the car park on the perimeter (even the car park is picturesque) and wander into the town by way of the swinging rope bridge for a look around and lunch.

Rupit church Catalonia

Dating back over 1000 years, Rupit boasts some pretty established restaurants, and I’d particularly recommend the rustic Ca l’Estragues’s at number 4 Church Street (Carrer de la Esglesia). Fringed by red geraniums, its postcard-perfect views over the river are a gorgeous setting for lunch, while the traditional Catalan pan al tomate just cries out for some serious smearing of garlic.

pan-al-tomate

But back to the waterfalls.

After sufficient consumption of garlic, head round to the back of Rupit (it’s not far) and set off on the hike that will take you to the spectacular Salt del Sallent (the Sallent ‘jump’).

You’ll be following the river through woods and craggy countryside, and although there are a couple of spots that might be slightly slippy if it’s been raining, most of the track is accessible and fairly flat.

Suddenly, when you least expect it, the tree-lined track opens out into searing sky, and this is what you spy.

View-from-Sallent-Waterfall by Julie Sheridan

Thousands of trees where sea should be, the summits of distant mountains swathed in cloud and, to your right, an almost 100-metre waterfall that wouldn’t look out of place in Lord of the Rings. The space is so spellbinding that it seems almost pointless to take photos, but there are a couple of miradores (look-out points) where you can stand and contemplate the Catalan countryside in all its vertiginous glory.

Let me know how you get on if you visit, and enjoy the long weekend:)

salt-de-sallent


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