Beyond Barcelona – day trips for the Catalan-curious
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.