Spanish Sun and Fields of Wheat: Exploring La Costa Brava by Bike
In the town of Peratallada—a medieval fairyland of crooked streets and hidden squares surrounding a massive 13th century castle—I had the great fortune to tell a woman that I’d never tried fuet. The statement, made idly to the gruff-but-friendly owner of a delicatessen, proved to be an entree into a wonderful world of Catalan cuisine, my free ticket to an exclusive and entirely authentic lesson in the food of Catalonia, Spain (the province in northeastern Spain by Barcelona). And, if I’m being honest, it wasn’t entirely true.
In the course of my week-long trip to Spain on Country Walkers Contrasts of Catalonia Self-Guided Biking adventure I had tried a great many different kinds of sausages and cured meats, of which fuet was but one. My stays at the friendly Hotel Sa Punta and the grand Castell D’Empordá had included sumptuous breakfast spreads with a wide range of cured meats and I, a firm believer in the “when in Rome” maxim, had tried them all. But as I rolled into the main square in Peratallada—with its medieval arcade and tiny outdoor restaurants—I couldn’t have told you a sobrassada from a bisbe to save my life. So, when the no-nonsense owner of a delicatessen asked me if I’d tried fuet, it just seemed safer to say “no.”
The woman, wearing a butcher’s apron and a handkerchief in her hair, couldn’t have been more horrified. “¿En serio?” she asked me. “Are you serious? We have to fix this.”
What followed was a thorough (and delicious) education into the local meats and cheeses of Catalunya. Standing in the narrow, stone nave of her store, beneath a barrel-vaulted ceiling painted bright red, we made our way through the many varieties of sausage dangling from glinting metal hooks in her display. When we’d made it through the sausages—peppery fuet, pungent xoriço, earthy butifarra negra—we started in on the cheeses: mildmanchego, zippy goat cheese (“queso de cabra”), sweet and fresh mato de Montserrat. “Not bad, right?” she asked me. Yup. “Have you tried the olive oils?”
All in all, this experience took about 20 minutes, but it was a fantastic microcosm of my overall adventure in Spain. As I made my way from town to town, it seemed like there was always a nice surprise lurking around the next bend—hidden just one step out of sight and waiting for me to discover it. A few examples, in no particular order: the golden eagle I snuck up on as I crested a hill near the village of Sant Feliu de Boada; the Iberian ruins of Sant Andrieu, a short side trip from Ullastret; the old mule path I found leading down to Sa Tuna beach; the plate of seared octopus in garlic sauce I enjoyed at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Bísbal. More than almost any other place I’ve been, the Costa Brava rewards your exploration. It’s perfect for a self-guided trip and ideal for bicycles.
Of course, not all of the region’s pleasures can be concealed. Like the mountaintop castle of Torroella de Montgrís (a massive rectangle of stone blocks planted high atop a bare mountain), some can be seen coming a mile away. I spent a free day off my bicycle wandering the coves and cliffs of the Mediterranean coast, marveling at the hidden beaches of Spain, waving at fishermen as they worked on their boats, and wading in the sparkling, sapphire water along the way. I guess I wasn’t too surprised that a region whose name means “the rugged coast” is incredibly scenic, but it was unforgettable nonetheless. While biking I took a recommended detour (laid out in our route notes) to the mouth of the Ter River, where its green water joins the deep blue of the sea. It was almost unbearably scenic, an area of empty white beaches fringed by stands of rushes, weathered driftwood, and the distant monoliths of the Illes Mendes rising from the azure water about half a mile out.
Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most, however, was the subtle beauty of the region’s rice fields. These long, flat expanses—lined with fruit trees and punctuated by the crumbling ruins of old farmhouses and barns—were perfect mirrors for the blue sky above them. As I pedaled along, I could see egrets, herons, ducks, and magpies hunting for dinner in the shallow water. That night at dinner, I discovered an additional, related pleasure as well: the rice used in my risotto was from exactly the region I’d just biked through.
Then—also like the mountaintop castle of Torroella de Montgrís—there were the highlights of the trip that were castles. I loved the 9th century Torre de las Horas in the flower-filled town of Pals. Its Baroque bell tower chimes every hour. From the hilltop city of Begúr, you could look up at the rough stone ramparts of its castle, an ancient birthday cake of a building crowned with triangular merlons. For an American like me, the fact these fortifications date back to before the discovery of the New World was just staggering.
Probably the standout of this bunch, however, was the aforementioned Castell D’Empordá. Standing tall atop a large hill just north of the city of Bísbal, this 13th-Century castle turned 4-star hotel was an elegant way to relax after a long day of bicycling. I loved the history of the place: it had once belonged to a sea captain who sailed with Columbus, had seen fighting during the Spanish Civil War, and had once been sought after by Salvador Dalí, who planned to make it his home (rumor is, the deal fell through when Dalí tried to pay with paintings).
Perhaps even more, however, I just loved the aesthetics of the place itself. I spent hours sitting on its poolside patio, watching the sunset turn the yellow tuff rock of the main tower from orange, to pink, to deep rose. Spread out below was a fertile river valley lined with wheatfields and punctuated with wild poppies. I could see the entire map of the day’s route spread out below me—the tiny towns of Casavells and Serra de Daró, the yellow ribbon of a dirt track ambling along beside the Daró River. Glancing at my route notes, I could even guess at some of the next day’s adventures—was that Ullastret in the distance? Sant Feliu de Boada? It was hard to tell; the road twisted away from view behind a stand of olive trees and an afternoon haze hung in the air. But at that moment the pool beckoned and I didn’t worry about it too much: there was dinner to look forward to first (satin ribbons ofjamón ibérico, rich red wine, a hearty plate of paella) and a leisurely evening to enjoy watching birds wing past my private balcony. Besides, the great pleasure in Costa Brava is always in discovering what lies beyond the next bend.