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Walk the Catalan Coast - A 7 Day Itinerary - Y Viva Espanã
Join me for a week long hike along 80 kilometres of the stunning coastline of the Catalonian Coast of Costa Brava. Y Viva Espanã!
This week, I’m off to sunny Spain (as the song goes), but I’m not taking the Costa Brava plane. Instead, I am embarking on my first walking holiday with Inn Travel – the Slow Holiday people,
Inn Travel make a good choice for the independent traveller looking to tailor their own trip. We were making our own way to the start of the trip from the South of France.
The smooth transition across borders in Europe always amazes me. As you motor over the largely invisible border between France to Spain, suddenly your Bonjour and Au Revoir turns to a much more robust Hola and Adios and in a flash, your Un, Deux has to become Uno, Dos. If you’re not careful, you can get quite quickly confused and find yourself ordering up a simple beer trilingually – much to the amusement of your unfortunate waitress.
Adding a fourth language of Catalan into the mix quadruples the fun!
The scenery changes quite fast too. Long rows of neat, green vines bristling with creamy white flowers waiting to yield their riches turn into gaudy pink and purple bougainvillea. In Catalonia, they leave the vin ordinaire to the French and they make bubbly “it’s party time” cava instead.
It’s time to pull out a bigger sun hat, don a darker pair of shades and prepare to embrace all the vibrance and exuberance that Spain has to offer #lovingholidays.
Day 1 - Hola/Olé - S’Agaro to Palamos
The 16 kilometre route from S’Agaro to Palamos follows the exceptionally well maintained coastal path passing a string of 20 or more coves en route which are increasingly less populated as your walk proceeds. You could easily have had a number of the coves all to yourself if you had wanted (do a quick check for nude sunbathers first though, if that bothers you?!). The walk is mainly flat, but you do have to get up and down to the coves and walk along the sand in between, which can slow you down quite a bit. There are numerous places to stop for refreshments and services all along on the way though which makes this an easy walk overall despite the distance.
As the sun continued to strengthen towards mid morning, the bright pink mesembryanthemums coating the cliffs along the coast opened out to display their full brilliance. It was hot walking – but very manageable with a maximum of 21 degrees C.
The walk fits easily into a relaxed pace day and allows plenty of time for a long linger at one of the beachfront bars for pa amb tomàquet – (tomato bread) and Iberian ham by the sea.
The walk finishes in the busy fishing port of Palamos – famous for its delicious prawns – reached via a long meticulously maintained promenade lined with pots of well watered sun loving flowers all without a weed in sight.
An unspoilt coastline the Costa Brava is not – but neither is it spoiled. Far from it – the small fishing villages scattered along the coast preserve an endearing harmony between the landscape, maritime activities and the historical legacy of a centuries old fishing culture.
The explosion of tourism has its benefits too – it means you are never too far away from a restorative tapas/beer. This early in the season you get all that convenience without the crowds and over fierce heat of a Spanish Summer.
Day 2 - Bon Dia - La Fosca to Calella de Palafrugell
It was a relatively short walk today (9.5 kilometres) with 2 steep climbs which both rewarded you with gorgeous views back along the coastline. Continuing along the coast, this stretch of the walk offers plenty of variety. Shady forests of pine, olives and cork oak profusely dotted with cooling pink and white cistus lead you to colourful fishermen’s cottages (belonging to the Costa Brava of long ago) and the remote jewel of El Golfet beach.
Hidden Gem - El Golfet Beach
A beach accessible only by foot is always intriguing and makes a lovely place to while away an afternoon in the warm Spanish sunshine after the exertion of the morning’s walk.
Platja Castell beach is also on the route. This beach has escaped development and has a well preserved sand dune eco-system. You are encouraged to photograph it as you pass using the carefully placed stand and submit your photo to assist the authorities to monitor the beach’s condition.
Day 3 - Must Do - Cap Roig Botanical Gardens, Palafrugell
Must Do - Cap Roig Botanical Gardens
Just 40 mins walk from the hotel – (mostly uphill!) brings you to the Cap Roig Botanical Gardens – a definite Must Do visit and a trip highlight. A cool breeze and a drop in temperature of 2 degrees aided our ascent to this remarkable place.
It opens at 10am and cost 20 euros pp (50% senior discount) at the time we visited.
There are a series of garden “rooms” to explore, each boldly planted with extensive blocks of plants – rather like a massive patchwork quilt – and all immaculately maintained. My surprise favourite was the cactus garden. I’m not usually a fan of cacti, but these were really spectacular. Many were flowering – which is an unusual thing to see. The mist rolling in from the sea gave the opportunity to take some dramatic photos.
Spend a moment or two in the peace and quiet of Dorothy’s shady garden, named after the British lady – Dorothy Webster – who created this impressive garden back in the 1920s. I am certain she would be very proud to see how well cared for and admired it still is today.
Lowlight - Palafrugell
Palafrugell is a modern workaday town whose inhabitants used to like to go down to the coast for their holidays and I can see why. I would choose to spend my precious holiday time by the sea here rather than inland too. Palafrugell was a bit of a lowlight of this trip for me and not really worth the long, hot walk up to it. To avoid making the same mistake – see Tips for Future Travellers below.
Palafrugell has a Cork Museum – celebrating the importance of cork oak to this area. Apparently, it is the largest museum of its kind in the world? The siesta is so long in this part of the world though that its large doors remained impenetrably shut all afternoon, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you what lies behind them. The museum is usually open between 10.00 – 14.00 and 17.00 – 20.30, but check the opening times carefully before you visit as it sometimes shuts for a day or part off a day, especially out of high season.
Tips for Future Travellers
There is a map at the entrance to the gardens with a helpful QR code link to a map you can download – but the wi-fi signal at the gardens was too weak to access it, so download it before you go so you can find your way around and make sure you don’t miss anything.
If you want to visit Palafrugell as well as the gardens and you only have 1 day, you might be better to go to Palafrugell first (before it shuts up for the long siesta) and visit Cap Roig on your way back.
There is a bus service between Palafrugell and Cap Roig which you might also find helpful.
Day 4 - Follow the Celebrities - Calella to Llafranc
Today’s walk takes you past several examples of the ubiquitous colourful beachfront boathouses (barracas) that are often much prized family heirlooms, passed from generation to generation. Some of the prettiest boathouses are those lining the Platja del Canadell, one of the largest beaches in Calella. The grand houses built alongside the beach tell their own tale: there is certainly some wealth stored in this part of northern Spain.
A steep climb eventually brings you to the San Sebastià watch-tower. It costs 2 euros pp to visit, but there are no facilities there. Expect little other than a view and an eclectic collection of artwork.
The good news is that it is downhill all the way back to Llafranc where a delicious seaside lunch of traditional Catalan Esqueixada is easy to find.
The white-washed streets of Llafranc form a little resort clustered around a a small sandy beach with a smart marina at one end. The idyllic setting has appealed to an impressive number of celebrity visitors over the years, including Kirk Douglas, Elizabeth Taylor and local lad Salvador Dali. The bar at the Hotel Llafranc along the bay has a collection of photographs signed by its rich and famous clientele.
Day 5 - Tapas/Siesta - Llafranc to Aiguablava
We have walked a total of 80 kilometres along the Catalan coast on this trip, so today, it was high time for a lazier day. 16 euros on a taxi to the hilltop medieval village of Begur – 3 kilometers from our hotel felt like money well spent. The town trail from the Tourist Office takes around an hour to complete and shows you all the interesting houses built in colonial style by inhabitants who made their fortunes in America. The statue of Carmen Amaya – the famed flamenco dancer with legs of steel who made her home and it’s beautiful gardens here in Begur is in the centre of town too.
Just around the corner from there, you can while away a happy couple of hours feasting on typical Spanish tapas at the El Tapas de Begur. Choose from their tempting selection of tapas and pay based on your collection of sticks (priced 1.60 – 2.10 euros) at the end. Be warned though – it is impossible to restrict yourself to just one visit to the counter. As lunch time progresses, the little kitchen works hard to keep the counter filled with new recipes depending on demand and what is in their pantry.
If there is one thing I will definitely remember about this trip, it is the steps. There were just sooo many of them?!
The walk back to the hotel is all downhill – easy peasy lemon squeezey – although an unexpectedly violent hailstorm livened up the last 10 minutes significantly!
Where We Stayed - Accommodation Reviews
Inn Travel made all the arrangements for the five hotels we stayed in on this trip and for our luggage to be transferred between the hotels when needed, leaving us free to walk with just a light daypack. If you were organising your own trip, you could use a firm such as Costa Brava Taxis to do this for you, but we really appreciated the convenience of the all in one package Inn Travel offered.
S'Agaró - S'Agaró Hotel
S’Agaro Hotel is a very comfortable 4* hotel with all the facilities you would expect including a spa (20 euros pp per hour) and a pool. There is a reasonable restaurant here too, but there are also several other options just a short walk away at the sea front. The secure car parking was a big bonus of this hotel – we left our car here for the week and collected it at the end of the holiday.
Next door to the hotel is the exclusive 5-star Hostal de la Gavina, popular on its heyday with Hollywood superstars such as Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
La Fosca Palamós - Hotel Ancora
This made a good stopping off point en route – although if you weren’t walking, you probably wouldn’t choose this hotel. The room was clean with a small bath and a balcony and the hotel is in a quiet location (although it is by a roadside).
The service is warm and friendly, the gin and tonics are generous and the dinner menu satisfying. There is also a swimming pool and a mini golf here. This hotel makes a convenient stopover on a walking route along the pretty Catalan coast.
Capella de Palafrugell - Hotel Sant Roc
Located just a short walk uphill from Calella, the family run Hotel San Roc has a lovely shady, geranium filled garden terrace overlooking the bay and a popular restaurant to tempt you with local delicacies (with à la carte options available if you choose). The pretty bedrooms are beautifully decorated. Breakfast on the sunny terrace listening to the waves and admiring the textile fish decor is a real treat.
Llafranc - Hotel Llevant
Location, location, location. Just walk straight out of the hotel, grabbing a beach towel from the neat stack by reception and hey presto you can head for the waves! After a day of sun and walking, you can fall asleep listening to them too. The service in the Hotel Llevant (which has been lovingly handed down through the family since it first opened in the 1930s) was warm and welcoming. The decor is interestingly quirky. This was undoubtedly the best restaurant of our trip – by quite a long way.
A good alternative might be the Hotel Terramar just a little further along the bay.
Begur - Hotel Aigua Blava
Our spacious room here at the Hotel Aigua Blava was easily the best of the trip. This beautifully decorated hotel has a selection of large lounges and terraces to relax in and the swimming pool is large enough to accommodate long length swimming happily.
The friendly staff are omnipresent – there always seems to be someone on hand to bring you a pool towel, pour a drink or call a taxi if you need one. Spending two nights here made a relaxing end to the holiday.
If you enjoy your food and like discovering regional delicacies, then Catalonia is a great place to visit. A week wasn’t quite enough to sample the full range of delicious local dishes, but I had fun trying. Here are some of my favourites:
Pa amb tomàquet - Tomato Bread
Pa amb tomàquet – tomato bread – is a staple food in Catalonia which is frequently eaten at breakfast as well as lunchtime. I wondered what the neatly piled stack of tomatoes on every breakfast buffet was for at first. Then I watched as the person in front of me toasted their bread, drizzled it with olive oil and carefully rubbed it with the flesh of a tomato or two. Yummy! We sampled it served with very thinly sliced iberico ham – a perfect lunch refreshment stop – right beside a bright blue sea. Apparently, the gesture of rubbing tomato on a piece of bread is a sign of Catalan identity.
Sangria isn’t completely new to me, but it is AGES since I last enjoyed a glass. A jug of sangria is certainly a lovely way to embrace balmy summer days. Take a mixture of fruit (eg chopped apples/pears/oranges and red berries) and sprinkle over a generous amount of sugar and a teaspoon of cinnamon. Leave the fruit to macerate in the fridge for an hour or so, then give it all a good stir (to dissolve the sugar) and tip into a large jug along with plenty of ice. Add a bottle of light red wine, 100 ml of Spanish brandy and 300 ml of sparkling water and you have a delightful sharing cocktail – truly the taste of Summer.
Esqueixada (pronounced Eski-shah-da) is a delicious and traditional Catalan dish combining shredded salt cod, tomatoes and onions with a dressing of olive oil.
Escalivada is another must try Catalonian delicacy. Oven roasted peppers, onions and courgettes are combined with a drizzle of olive oil. I had mine topped with tuna. Bueno!
Those I sampled as an entrée at the at Aiguablava Hotel were small, but packed full of flavour.
Mar I Muntanya (Sea and Mountain)
The Catalonians like to make dishes combining meat and fish/shellfish. The version I tried was chicken and shrimps. It was a bit salty with too much liquid for my liking, but interesting nonetheless.
Last – but definitely not least – Tapas. My favourite lunch of the trip (and there was some stiff competition!) was the tapas at El Tapas de Begur on the last day of our trip (see above). Washed down with a couple of glasses of local vino tinto, it made a fitting last memory of a lovely week walking the Catalan Coast.
Flora and Fauna
Mesembryanthemums/Ice Plants and Prickly Pears
Mesembryanthemums/ice plants and prickly pears are abundant all along the coastline, but – although their bright pink and orange flowers are attractive – their presence may well be more if a curse than a blessing as these plants can be invasive in some areas.
Cork Oak, Pine and Cistus
In the early Summer heat, walking through shady forests of cork oak and pine, punctuated with sand loving pink and white cistus was a joy.
Medusa/Jellyfish - Unwelcome Visitors
Another unwelcome visitor to the shore were the white jellyfish/medusa at the Platja de Llafranc. Like most jellyfish it will sting if you make contact and give you what feels like a sharp electric shock or a wasp sting. It shouldn’t cause any severe harm, but can still hurt and leave a weeping rash that will last for a few days. Yellow flags on the beaches are a signal that there are more jellyfish about than usual. There were no yellow flags out, but I decided not to swim here anyway – paddling was as far as I got.
Learning the Lingo
Nowhere else in Europe has a bilingual non-state speech community.as large as Catalonia’s. Their language remains a powerful symbol of Catalan identity and potential nationhood and is kept very much alive by those who continue to yearn for their independence. It means it can take you a while to get your head around the menus though. It is a bit of a cross between Spanish and French, which is not surprising, given their proximity. Here are a few helpful phrases top start you off:
Bon dia (Bon dee-ah) – Hallo
De res (deh res) – You’re welcome
Adéu (ah-deh-ou) – Goodbye
Bon profit! (bon pro-feet) Bon appetit!
El compte, si us plau (el com-teh see oos plow) – The bill, please.
Em cobres (um cub-ras) – literally translated – charge me – this phrase is used much more frequently by local Catalans.
Glad I Packed
Keen shoes – I increasingly struggle to find comfortable walking shoes. Did you know that your feet get bigger as you get older? I never knew this – I just kept buying the same size and wondering why my feet hurt?! Keen shoes are so well made and they are wide fitting too, giving your feet plenty of room to expand on a long trek in hot weather. Highly recommended!
Klean Kanteen – A sturdy water bottle that can be filled with cold water at your hotel before you set out and refilled along the way as you hike too. It won’t dent if you drop it, it keeps your water cool and it saves on plastic waste too. Buy one and use it for ever. #savetheplanet
Leki walking poles – Lightweight, foldable into three sp they fit neatly inside your rucksack, but sturdy enough to withstand the rockiest of paths. A great companion for trekking/hiking on rough terrain and giving your arms a good workout on steep ascents/descents to take some of the pressure off your legs/knees. They are also useful for lifting unwelcome route barriers carefully out of the way. A good investment – I wouldn’t walk without them now I have saved up for a pair.
Final Reflections - Thanks to Inn Travel
This was my first trip with Inn Travel, but it won’t be my last. I could have easily booked this trip independently – so I was asking myself: What does booking with Inn Travel add to the cost of this sort of trip – and – most importantly – does it represent good value for money? Inn Travel are top of Which’s tour operator list for independent travel for good reason, in my view. In my experience, what they provided was:
- Carefully chosen hotels of a uniformly high/very high standard
- Comprehensive and accurate walking route details
- Thorough trip documentation (as good as any guidebook) with well researched options for alternative ways to spend your precious holiday hours
- Good restaurant recommendations
- Smooth and efficient travel and baggage transfers
- Good communication throughout – from booking through to payment and also en route (to arrange an earlier taxi pick up at the end of the trip)
- Flexibility around start and end dates, travel arrangements, extra days and accommodation upgrades – perfect for the independent traveller looking for something other than the standard package deal.
Thanks Inn Travel – I will be back for more soon!