EMPORDA and surroundings


Albons Bellcaire d’Empordà Foixà Fontclara La Bisbal d’Empordà
Canapost Casavells Corçà Clots de Sant Julià Canet Cruïlles Marenyà Matajudaïca Monells Palau-Sator Parlavà Pals Peratallada La Pera Púbol Rupià Sant Iscle d’Empordà Sant Julià de Boada Sant Sadurní de l’Heura La Tallada d’Empordà Tor Ullastret Ultramort Verges Vulpellac

Agullana Castell Sant Ferran fortress Dali's Museum Figueres Maçanet de Cabrenys Lladó Llers L'Escala Les Escaules Peralada Pont de Molins Riumors Sant Miquel de Fluvià Sant Tomàs de Fluvià La Vajol Vilabertran Viladamat Vilanova de la Muga Ventalló

Besalú Porqueres Banyoles Cervià de Ter Le Boulou Maureilles Céret Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines


GETAWAY: Double the pleasure with trip to Spain and France

Northern Spain and southern France.
They make a colossal combo for travellers who enjoy going to places not on everyone's greatest hits list.
While these regions would hardly be described as undiscovered treasures, they are treasures nonetheless and deserve to be explored, especially those located off the beaten and often precarious path.
Case in point, the aptly named Spain's Costa Brava. We drove along this "wild" coast after leaving Barcelona, where we attended the marriage of a former colleague. You can start this trek from Blanes and journey all the way up to the French border. The distance may look short on a map but the winding, vertiginous roads will make travelling from one town to another a lengthy process.
Unless you have plenty of vacation time to spend, we recommend picking and choosing places to visit along this coast. We eschewed the touristy resort towns of Lloret de Mar and Tossa de Mar and instead drove along roads that took us to their outskirts. The views from Tossa de Mar to St. Feliu de Guixols were particularly dazzling.
However, these byways are not for the faint of stick shift, or passengers easily freaked out by narrow roads with few barriers and 100-foot drops into jagged rocks, steep canyons or ocean waves. Unhappy trails. Fortunately, my wife, Beverly, is a fabulous driver so I didn't sweat through too many shirts.
If you have time for only one place to see on Costa Brava, we strongly suggest Cadaqués. Once a quiet fishing village and later a haven for artists, the place now attracts tourists, and for a good reason. This seaside town is loaded with charm. Park the car - spaces can be hard to find - and take a stroll along the beach and head either toward Santa Maria Church or along a curving road where stairways lead to secluded nooks and crannies ideal for sunbathing. Swimming from nook to nook is also possible; though finding a flat rock to get on shore can be a challenge.
While in Cadaqués, a drive to nearby Port Lligat is a must as it contains the amazing Salvador Dali House-Museum. That the home resembles a surrealist work of art is to be expected considering the owner was the world's most famous surrealist artist.
The abode come jampacked with oddities from the stuffed polar bear holding a lamp in the vestibule to the phallic swimming pool in back. See how Dali lived and painted during the course of more than 50 years, and after the visit, you may draw the conclusion that this man was slightly eccentric.
Buy tickets in advance for this guided tour as the house-museum only accepts a few visitors at a time.
If you want more proof that Dali walked on the idiosyncratic side, head to Figueres, the town of Dali's birth and home of the Dali Theatre-Museum. Inaugurated in 1974 on the site of a municipal theatre bombed during the Spanish Civil War, the Dali museum, like the Dali house, oozes surrealism. In fact, it is described as the largest surrealistic object in the world. Even the exterior has its flourishes such as the egg-like sculptures on the roof.
Inside you'll find works of art bound to generate jaw dropping and head scratching. Try to get included in a guided tour in order to have someone explain what the heck Dali was thinking when he created most of these works.
Check out the "Rainy Cadillac" in the main courtyard. Plants inside the car get periodically watered by a sprinkler system. On the car's hood is a huge sculpture of a busty woman. There's also the Mae West Room, complete with custom furniture that looks like West's face when seen from the right spot.
The museum also showcases three-dimensional collages, stereoscopic paintings, mechanical devices, holograms - one is of Alice Cooper - and works of other artists. In addition, it houses the Dali-Joies collection as Dali also made distinctive works of art with precious jewels.
Figueres is also home to the Toy Museum of Catalonia and the Museum of the Empordà, which features archaeology and 19th and 20th century Catalan and Empordà paintings. Figueres has a main thoroughfare called Rambla though it's much more subdued than its cousin to the south. The town has its own attractive architecture, an open-air market and a park where yours truly went to decompress.
From Figueres we drove about an hour north on the highway into France. This highway is a toll road, by the way, and the tolls aren't cheap. After crossing the border we headed toward the tiny town of St.-Jean-Pla-de-Corts, where our three-bedroom, modern gite was waiting for us. In France, a gite is a home or apartment available for short-term rental, usually on a weekly basis, that typically comes fully furnished.
Located south of Perpignan in between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, St. Jean is ideally situated for sightseeing as it is close to major highways and some of the more picturesque places in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France.
Devotees of medieval churches, medieval castles and delightful seaside towns and ancient abbeys will find something to swoon over here.
We lead off with the medieval castle at Castelnou. Built around 990, it was demolished in the 16th century, deteriorated during the 17th and 18th centuries, sold in the 19th century and ravaged by a fire in the 20th century. What, no termites? It has since been restored. Interestingly, its name means "new castle" in Catalan.
Located on a hill high above the village of Castelnou, the castle has a terrace area providing a top-of-the-world-Ma vista. Bring the camera. Regional wines can also be purchased here. Fans of decorated eggs should definitely visit Atelier Depierre's at 12 Carrer del Mtg.
The town itself, located a few miles west of Thurr, has that idyllic thing going for it.
For a change of pace, we journeyed to Collioure, a beautiful Mediterranean town with a stone beach bookended by a castle and a church. The latter was formerly a lighthouse. We took a dip in the ocean, which was refreshingly cool and brilliantly clear. Very calm, too. A beach with wilder surf is nearby with a warning sign that basically says, "Swim here and prepare to perish."
You won't be alone in this tourist destination, but while we were there in late June, the crowds were manageable. Locating a parking space, however, can be troublesome.
For travellers who love to walk on paths better suited for mountain goats we submit the mountaintop castle of Peyrepertuse. Believe me, walking there is more difficult than pronouncing its name. It means "pierced rock." But the effort will be worth it as this 11th century marvel of medieval engineering looks more like it grew out of the mountain than built on top of it. Just don't try walking the path in the rain. The rocks along it are slippery enough when they're dry. Young children will need supervision, too. This isn't a Disneyfied site. Incredible views though. It's located northwest of Perpignan in the middle of nowhere.
A more family-friendly trek can be found at Les Gorges de la Fou, one of the narrowest canyons in the world. A metal footbridge leads you through the gorge where netting protects you from falling rocks. You wear a hard hat for the journey just in case. Rapids race below you while drops of water occasionally fall on you from above. One of the large boulders carries an inscription about a sheep that fell into the gorge yet miraculously survived. Its fleece also miraculously changed colours. Do you believe in miracles?
The walk is about a half-mile long with steps taking you up and down the gorge. Kids should like the slimy, mossy walls.
Aficionados of abbeys - and we know you're out there - will want to flock to the Benedictine abbey at nearby Arles-sur-Tech. The place showcases a killer cloister and features a variety of architectural styles. It also houses an early Christian sarcophagus that reportedly contains water even though it doesn't come in contact with the ground. A miracle or simply condensation? We couldn't decide since we didn't see any water while we were there.
The priory of Serrabonne is yet another architectural jewel containing carved pillars of pink marble that should give your camera a workout. The details are stunning. Getting to this Romanesque gem is a trip in itself as the priory, located between Amelie to the south and Rodes to the north, is a tad remote.
Fresco lovers will definitely want to visit the petite chapel of Saint-Martin-de-Fenollar where they'll find impressive frescoes dating back to the 12th century. The chapel itself, surrounded by cork trees in a rural setting a few miles south of Le Boulou, dates back to the 9th century. Our tour guide gave us an excellent description of the history behind these works of art and what they signify.
We should add that speaking French comes in very handy during many of these sojourns.
For a definition of picturesque, we suggest a trek to Eus, a medieval town set high on a hill near Prades. After strolling through this enchanting place, order a snack at the tea room located down one of the alleyways in a flower-filled courtyard with gorgeous views.
Last but certainly not least is Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste. Located near the Spanish border, Prats-de-Mollo is an attractive walled town of narrow, cobbled streets. Folks who adore very long, uphill walks in musty, dark quarters will get rapturous trudging up the covered passageway leading to Fort Lagarde. We didn't visit La Preste because we were pressed for time. Sorry.
As is the case in most of Europe, June is a great time to travel. The tourist season hasn't hit full force yet and the weather is usually good. It rained only one night during our stay, which lasted almost two weeks.
One final word, or two - as expensive as Spain is, due to the weak dollar, France is even more expensive, especially for gas, food and tolls. Some gas stations only let you put so much gas into your tank. Deals can be found, however.
We know we didn't see all there is to see in this gorgeous and history-laden region. All the more reason to return one day.
Sep 18, 2008

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