Rupit is as pretty as a village can be. Like a tiny Toledo it huddles round a crag, bounded on three sides by the Rupit river, and the astonishing thing about it is that there is nothing to mar its beauty. Of course there are rules; there have to be rules, knowing what people are. Thus you are not allowed to paint your front door any colour you fancy nor, indeed, any colour at all – everything must be bare stone and wood. The only permissible variation is the red geraniums that adorn the wooden balconies, and the green of the vegetables in the kitchen gardens by the river. Rupit is the sort of village that makes you happy just to be in it, and it was with some reluctance that I tore myself away from it the next morning, heading downriver on the first leg of our journey through La Garrotxa to distant Besalú.
Three old friends and I had signed up for an organised walking tour, something I have never done before. I set out in a mood of petulant suspicion, thinking this sort of thing was for sissies, but little by little it dawned on me that through all my years of travelling, I must have been bonkers to do it on my own. With this arrangement, there was a route map to tell us where to go, the hotels had been selected and booked, and, miracle of miracles, our bags would arrive at the next destination before we got there ourselves. Also we spent a lot less time lost in industrial estates or flailing about in impassable swamps than has hitherto been the way with my independent wandering.
So as we tripped down the path that would take us from Rupit to Mas la Serra, by a route conceived to fill you with delight and take you through wildly differing landscapes rather than get you there quickly, petulance and suspicion sloughed away and I gave myself up to wallowing in the delights of unspoiled countryside.
The way wound down through the woods, following the Rupit river, until we came to a waterfall. Waterfalls are always marvellous and we stopped for a while to feel those negatively charged ions that are apparently what falling water produces. Pale sunlight filtered through the canopy of leaves; the path was bordered by wood anemones, hellebores and ferns, and the woods were ringing with birdsong.
We continued down river, our way gladdened by nightingales and frogs, until suddenly we burst upon a thing so awesome and sublime that it knocked the breath from us. The river vanished over the edge of a cliff to crash into a pool hundreds of feet below. At the same time the woods opened out to a colossal forested canyon. The drop was so terrifying, and so completely devoid of any of the features that a society obsessed with health and safety might consider necessary, that it made our heads spin. Daring one another, we crept ever closer to the awful abyss, enjoying that curious loosening of the nether abdomen and jellification of the legs.
Later we climbed through open meadows, with cows, who had clipped the trees to cow browsing height, giving the place the air of a manicured garden. The path meandered through the deep green grass close to the clifftop. We looked out across distant ranges way down to the south and west; mountains girdled with clouds and thick forest cloaking all the land. There were brimstone and clouded yellow butterflies frittering away their brief lives among the cowslips and tiny sweet-scented daffodils. There were purple irises and bee orchids and a hundred other flowers but it was the daffodils that gave us a feeling of elation in the parts above the nether abdomen. We are old folks; we like birds and flowers and that sort of thing, and the flora of these glorious meadows made our wrinkled old hearts rejoice. They always said there were certain compensations to the decrepitude of the advancing years; these, then, were they.
All through that pale sunlit day we moved from one landscape into another, and it was almost as if each landscape was a tiny country peopled by different animals, trees and flowers. It was the most appetising agriculture. The beef cows were reared in lush meadows with their mothers; the lambs lay contented in idyllic landscapes by clear rivers. The famous fesols de Santa Pau, little white beans, burst from the deep rich volcanic soils, and ranks of succulent vegetables filled the kitchen gardens. Everything we saw made us want to eat it. This is the “volcanic cuisine” of the Garrotxa, about which more later.
We stopped at a restaurant on the way for pan amb tomàquet, bread with tomato, which is what you get throughout Catalonia, some delicious preserved meats, and beer. In a pork and beery haze we wandered on through beech forests and birch woods, intoxicated by the beauty and the silence. There were no aircraft, no people-babble and no roaring of rubber on road, just the slap-slap of our feet, the drone of our conversation, bees buzzing, and birdsong. Finally, as great black-bellied clouds gathered above us we made it to the farmhouse of Mas la Serra, where the dazzling Elisabeth Casacuberta Colom fussed over us, while her partner saw to the cooking.
Later we dined in front of a log fire as the rain thundered on the roof and the sheep huddled against the wall of the house. The Spanish can be pretty critical of the Catalans, dismissing them as dour and businesslike and thin on charm. This antipathy goes back since way before anybody can remember. Fortunately though, we don’t have to carry that baggage, and I found that they were warm and welcoming and laughed in all the right places.
In the morning the world was washed, and a breeze blew the rain away as we wandered along the edge of a high scarp to the wayside chapel of Sant Miquel de Castelló, with its heart-stopping view over the plain far below and the new snow on the Pyrenees. Sometimes we walked in deep forests, sometimes across gently rolling farmland.
We dropped down a long hill through the forest to the plain we had seen below. It had looked flat and unappealingly neat, like a map, from above, but once we got down in it we could smell the farmyards and the bakeries and the fields of ripening corn, and it all seemed more human. We met a blind man wandering along a road flanked by whispering plantations of poplars. He knew the roads well, he said, and walked six miles every day. He had been blind for 20 years, since he drove his car into a tree and lost an eye, and then a month later accidentally took the other one out with a meat-saw. I asked him, as I was learning a deeper appreciation of the pleasures of birdsong, if his other faculties had become more acute.
“Pardon,” he said, “I’m a little deaf.”
Over the following days we passed through more worlds. Our first view of a volcano crater, which is what La Garrotxa is famous for, was disappointing. It looked like nothing so much as a muddy field, in which a couple of horses were grazing. Later on they became more spectacular: Santa Margarida for instance, which actually looks like a volcano except that its flanks are cloaked in deep green forest. What did I expect: magma?
At Santa Pau of the famous fesols we stayed in the hotel Cal Sastre, which has a restaurant in the stone cloistered square of the village. Here we lingered over an unforgettable supper, which included the very best bit of beef I have ever eaten, and then, the next day, resisting the temptation to spend our rest day travelling to a market in Olot, we had lunch there too, which went on all afternoon.
I didn’t want to leave Santa Pau but, once we were on the road, heading on our last and longest day to far off Besalú, I realised that of all the walks, this was the loveliest yet.
In Besalú we stayed at the delightful and slightly mad hotel Martana (it has a library and a Great Dane). Outside is the medieval bridge into the heart of the town. It’s not a proper town as it only has 2,000 inhabitants and there’s not much traffic. Of course in the Middle Ages it would have been a nightmare of poverty, illiberality and scant amenities, but it certainly would have looked good. Its greatest amenity today is Els Fogons de Can Llaudes, recommended in the guide-book as being a bit pricey but worth every penny. It all looked a bit quiet and closed on the night we found ourselves enjoying a beer in the square, so at 8.30 I rang.
“Yes, we are open. Would you like to book?” said a voice.
“Well we’d rather like to eat now.”
“OK, come on over, but you’ll have to drink until nine o clock; it takes a little time to get things steamed up.”
We went over to what looked like a church but the door was still shut. After 10 minutes of looking at it I rang again.
“I’m so sorry, I forgot to open the door,” said the voice.
Soon the door opened and our host ushered us in. There were candles, fresh flowers, and glimmering glasses. How to describe the best meal I have ever had? You didn’t know, and nor did I, that in little Besalú has come to rest one of the great geniuses of European cuisine. It would be futile to describe the meal, so take the bus from Barcelona to Rupit, and amble and guzzle your way through this little known gem of country until you get to Besalú, then ring up and book a meal at Els Fogons de Can Llaudes. You’ll thank me.
Chris Stewart is the author of ‘Driving Over Lemons’ (Sort Of Books) and two sequels about life in rural Andalucia
Chris Stewart travelled as a guest of ATG Oxford (www.atg-oxford.com), on its five-day “Hills of Girona” trip, which costs from £490 per person including accommodation, breakfasts, two dinners, route book with walking directions and maps, support of a local “route manager” and luggage moves.
Restaurant Cal Sastre in Santa Pau: www.calsastre.com
Els Fogons de Can Llaudes in Besalú: www.elsfogonsdecanllaudes.com
Summer strolls: More self-guided walking in Europe
Norway August can be too hot for comfortable walking in southern Europe, but is the perfect time to head north. Inntravel offers a range of trips, including a self-guided week-long trip to Hardangerfjord, east of Bergen. You stay in hotels beside the water, walking each day in the surrounding hills. From £948; www.inntravel.co.uk
Slovenia This itinerary takes you from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, to Trieste in Italy. The first and final sections are by train, but for the rest of the week you are on foot, walking between working farms and vineyards which offer bed and breakfast. Highlights include the pretty hill villages of Tomaj and Stanjel, castles and dramatic limestone caves. Luggage is transferred for you so you only need carry a daypack. From £650; www.onfootholidays.co.uk
UK Ramblers Worldwide has been organising group walking holidays since 1946 (with profits being donated to charitable causes) but this year launched Load Off Your Back, a new division offering self-guided trips on Britain’s long distance footpaths. Clients stay in country inns, guesthouses or small hotels, luggage is transferred, and maps and route notes are provided. Itineraries range from the Cornish Coast Path to the West Highland Way. Week-long trips start around £500; www.loadoffyourback.co.uk
Italy Headwater offers numerous independent walking trips, including a 10-night trek along the coast of Liguria. It takes in picturesque towns such as Portofino and Portovenere as well as the cliff-top paths of the Cinque Terre. As before, bags are transferred for you. From £1,339; www.headwater.com